This July, Tasting Table celebrates the great state of American food and drink.
There once existed an America without peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Not just the country—the continent, the planet and for all we know, the galaxy and beyond. And that's a very sad state of affairs indeed.
Then again, people didn't know what they were missing. A scant century ago, mortals roamed the earth unaware of the perfect pairing of peanut butter and jelly, a combination that would soon appease the palates of children and haute chefs alike. Surely bread had existed since time immemorial and across boundaries intercontinental—and ground-up nuts and cooked-down, sugared preserves as well. But it took some good old American gumption to form this most perfect union and turn it into a national sandwich obsession. Here's how it all came to be.
Save your wild-spore sourdough and artisanal Tuscan loaves for another sandwich; this is a job for presliced, bagged white bread. That was made possible on a mass scale by Iowa-born jeweler and inventor Otto Frederick Rohwedder, who is widely credited with the creation of the first automatic bread slicer. He faced over a decade of setbacks, including a fire that destroyed his prototype and blueprints, and naysayers who believed that a cut loaf was susceptible to premature staling and quality loss. Eventually, Rohwedder's friend, Frank Bench, gave the multibladed machine a spin at his Chillicothe Baking Company, and its initial run received a rave review on the front page of the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune on July 6, 1928.
The article read in part: The idea of sliced bread may be startling to some people. Certainly it represents a definite departure from the usual manner of supplying consumers with bakers loaves. As one considers this new service one cannot help but be won over to a realization of the fact that here indeed is a type of service, which is sound, sensible and in every way a progressive refinement in Bakers bread service.
Chillicothe and Rohwedder's "Kleen-Maid" sliced loaves (which were initially held together with pins before the machine was modified to wrap them in wax paper) were a rousing success, and St. Louis baker Gustav Papendick soon made improvements that allowed for even more efficient wrapping. By 1930, soft, sliced commercial loaves could be found on bakery shelves across the country.
Sliced bread was banned by the Secretary of Agriculture in 1943 in an effort to preserve resources for GIs fighting in WWII, but the backlash from the home front was so strong that the measure was lifted after about two months.
The Peanut Butter
Ground nut butters and pastes can be found in cuisines the world over, but in the late 1800s, John Harvey Kellogg's Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan, touted pulverized peanuts as a health food for wealthy sanitarium guests. Its popularity spread among the American upper crust, and by 1897, Kellogg and his brother, Will, had formed the Sanitas Nut Food Company, which sold, among other goods, a foodstuff called peanut butter. It was originally promoted as a substitute for butter, cream and meat, as well as a soup, cereal and beverage component, and a vegetable dressing.
According to Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, by Andrew F. Smith, peanut butter sandwich recipes "burst onto the culinary scene" in 1896, with articles in women's magazines like Good Housekeeping and Table Talk, and recipes in community cookbooks. These exhorted readers to run peanuts through a meat grinder and spread them onto bread—ideally bolstered with mayonnaise or Worcestershire sauce or spiced with cayenne or paprika.
Peanut butter's popularity skyrocketed after its appearance at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, and it soon was nationally manufactured by both Heinz and Beech-Nut. Its economic viability dipped down to the hoi polloi when the boll weevil decimated the South's cotton supply and George Washington Carver touted peanuts as an alternative crop to stabilize the region. Hydrogenation technology in the 1920s led to a product that was both nationally shippable and eminently totable in lunch boxes, making peanut butter sandwiches an ideal, low-cost, nutritious food for kids during the Great Depression.
With all due respect to the world's panoply of preserves, it's gotta be grape jelly in a PB&J, and that grape simply must be Concord. Though grapes have been commercially grown since 1000 B.C. or so, this hardy, full-bodied, unapologetically purple variety was first harvested in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1854—a carefully bred descendent of the vines that Ephraim Wales Bull found growing wild in the town some years before. Though Bull died a near pauper, his legacy crop lived on. In 1869, New Jersey dentist Dr. Thomas Welch harvested, cooked and juiced a large quantity of the Concord grapes from the trellises outside his home and soon developed a process for safely preserving the juice and stopping fermentation. The juice was a smash success, first finding a place on churches' communion tables and then in home kitchens. In 1918, the Welch's product line expanded to include a jelly called Grapelade.
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Though The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics famously published the first printed recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in 1901, the invention of Grapelade sealed the PB&J's place in history. During WWII, the U.S. Army bought up Welch's entire run of Grapelade to feed GIs serving overseas. Nutrient-dense peanut butter—and bread, naturally—were part of the standard rations, and when the boys returned home from Europe, they brought back their newly acquired taste for the combination of peanut butter and jelly, and demand for all the ingredients went through the roof. Perhaps to them, it tasted a little bit like victory.
The PB&J 2.0
A PB&J might seem like a throwback to lunch boxes and after-school snacks, but plenty of America's most innovative chefs use it as inspiration for their sweet creations. Here's what some of our favorite chefs have to say about it:
"We serve popcorn instead of the standard bread service. We change the flavors every couple of days and have done a PB&J popcorn that went over rather well. We made a peanut butter powder using tapioca maltodextrin and peanut butter, and infused salted butter with strawberry jam. We use a popcorn kernel called 'jumbo large caramel' that pops into large kernels with crunchy texture. The popcorn gets tossed in the butter along with some salt, then we top it with the peanut butter powder and crushed roasted peanuts." —Kevin Korman: Caliza, Alys Beach, Florida
"We have a 'fluffernutter' on the menu right now, a peanut butter mousse tart with toasted brioche, meringue and black raspberry stracciatella ice cream. Its creation was intended to tug on the heartstrings of everybody's inner child. PB&J is one of my favorite childhood snacks; throwing fluff into the mix or even bananas just makes it better."—Stephen Collucci: Colicchio & Sons, NYC
"I love to make myself small bites of Marcona butter and Honeybell orange jam on benne crackers. It's the perfect combination for a midday snack."—Erik Niel: Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats, Chattanooga, Tennessee
"When Concord grape season comes around in the fall, I like to make a PB&J ice cream sundae. Peanut butter ice cream with Concord grape jam and something crunchy like honey-roasted peanuts or caramel popcorn."—Abby Swain: Craftbar, NYC
"I love a PB&J, yes. Other than the pretty predictable ways one loves a PB&J from childhood (always creamy, always with grape jelly, always on a fresh loaf of white or wheat Bunny Bread to insure optimal roof-of-mouth sticking pleasure, always with a giant glass of plain whole milk), there have been a few grown-up ways to play around with it. Sometimes strawberry jelly will suffice, or a beautiful rhubarb jam, you say? Sure, I'll bite, but it's never the same.
I will say, I paid a great tribute to it at Husk with a Peanut Butter Chess Pie with Concord Grape Sherbet, and I thought people (the cooks in the kitchen mainly) were going to die of happiness. So many eyes got rolled straight up into heads that day. A pastry chef win, all because PB&J slays that trifecta of comfort, nostalgia and deliciousness. It's kind of everything." —Lisa Donovan, Buttermilk Road, Nashville, Tennessee
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