This post isn't about romance or love, unless I consider a PB&J sandwich my first love (which would be valid). This is just a funny little tidbit I learned before a recent trip to Berlin that sparked me to poll every German I met.
Prior to leaving for my trip I was talking to a co-worker originally from the Czech Republic about food (we were debating what to order for lunch). He said he didn't have a preference and loved almost all types of food. When I mentioned one restaurant described itself as American style he laughed and said, "There's only one real American food or "dish" (he used finger quotes) and do hate it."
I thought for a second. "Hot dogs?" He frowned at me and without saying a word I conceded that they're not American in origin at all (Johann Georgehner created the "little-dog" in the 1600s) and then I thought, hamburgers? He shook his head and since that particular item has been up for debate for more than a century I'll also concede we may not own that one too. So I was very intrigued at this point and asked what he as an immigrant considered the only American food.
He shrugged as if the answer was obvious and common knowledge and said, "A peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
"Leave," I demanded before breaking into an ornery laugh. Of course I didn't mean it but I was so surprised I didn't know what to say. For me this sparked a gasp and dropped jaw because I've never heard someone say this. I know many people are allergic to peanuts and therefore can't eat peanut butter, but I've never seen someone wrinkle their nose as if these delights smell bad.
So I inquired further. "Why?" I asked.
"Peanut butter is just disgusting. And it's really just an American thing. You people are addicted to it. You ruin everything good by mixing it in; chocolate, preserves, ice cream. It tastes salty and oily and slightly burnt-like."
My next question was naturally, "Do you feel that way about other nut butters? Almond? Cashew?"
He shook his head strongly and said, "No! I love those."
As you can imagine by this point I was freaking out (inside of course) wondering how one of my favorite foods could be hated. So I had to ask more non-Americans to find out if this is an epidemic. Luckily I had other co-workers who were also from northern or eastern Europe to ask and they may not have hated peanut butter to the same extent (one person even liked it) they all agreed it was to them the most American food.
My obsession with this topic continued in Berlin where I visited some American friends there for work. Suddenly every German I was introduced too would comment that they didn't feel like the hamburger or the hot dog were probably ours and when peanut butter and jelly was brought up they laughed. That's right. There were giggles about our cute little "dessert" sandwich and most of them could take it or leave it. I mentioned that I feel the same way about Nutella and this got me a puzzled look or a snide, "There's no comparison."
So then I learned the very short history on the subject and was amazed with what I learned. Peanut butter was considered a "high end" food until it became more available to the masses in the 1920s and 1930s, shortly after pre-sliced bread was all the rage. It was at this point that commercial brands of ultra-creamy peanut butter were developed such as Skippy and Peter Pan.
With the Great Depression, peanut butter on bread became a staple in many American households because it provided a hearty, filling meal with a cheaper-than-meat substitute for protein. No doubt some at this point were happily creating PB&J sandwiches, but the real surge in popularity was yet to come.
This brings us to WWII. Grapelade’s (the Welch's grape preserve spread) popularity with the troops paved the way for jelly to be included in the soldiers’ rations during this war as well. Along with the jelly was the trusty high-protein peanut butter that had proved so useful during the Great Depression, and, of course, pre-sliced bread. The perfect storm.
Perhaps they had heard of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before, or perhaps it was simply a natural inclination to combine these three staple ingredients in their rations, but before long the peanut butter and jelly sandwich became a popular meal among United States soldiers.
When soldiers arrived home from the war, peanut butter and jelly sales skyrocketed. It was an instant hit with just about everyone—kids loved how good it tasted, parents loved how easy it was to make, and college students liked that it was cheap. Since then, this sandwich has become a “traditional” American favourite.
By the end of my research I was looking at the sandwich that my mom gave me nearly everyday in my lunchbox as an iconic statement of origin instead of a cheap way to appease my unhealthy dietary cravings. Think about it... Few things are more American than Elvis Prestley and even he made his own variation with bananas that he couldn't live without. So I embrace the All-American Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich as our culinary mascot and hope that other cultures will learn to appreciate it's simplicity as well as it's place in history. And for my friend and co-worker who scrunched his nose... "You're just weird man. I mean, in your culture you throw water on women and girls before whipping them with a switch on Easter Sunday and claim it's to promote youth. Come on. That's the most backward thing I've every heard." *nose scrunching*
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