ESSAY: The Perils and Pleasures of Peanut Butter

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By Joan Silverman

First, a confession: I no longer allow peanut butter in my home. Why? Because my delivery system of choice isn’t a conventional knife, but a spoon. Spoon to jar to mouth, direct transit, no stops along the way.

 Yet variations on this product are perfectly safe in my house. Thai peanut sauce, peanut butter cookies, peanut brittle — delicious all, but without the pure temptation that is peanut butter.

Of course it’s easy to dismiss a childhood staple for its sticky, lowbrow simplicity. For its assertiveness and inability to play well with others, its preference for the virtuoso role. Most sauces that originate with peanut butter are bullies, trouncing other ingredients. Chicken with peanut sauce, for instance, too often tastes like, well, peanut sauce.  

Or consider the beloved Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, with its attempt at power-sharing. Though the chocolate shell makes itself known, the product name all but declares the winner.  

Like few other foods, peanut butter can embody one’s childhood in a few essential images: Blue metal lunchbox, green canoe, redwood picnic table. In these scenarios, the peanut butter of my 1960s youth was always paired with strawberry jam, and sandwiched between slices of Wonder Bread, reassuringly soft and white. At that stage in our nation’s dietary evolution, there was little talk of rustic, locally sourced whole grains. Breads were divided by function — subs, dinner rolls, pizza crust. Even pita pockets had yet to go mainstream.

But as our nutritional vistas expanded, so, too, did our vocabulary. We now live in a world of no-fat, low-carb, farm-raised, free-range foods. With all of that hyphenation came greater awareness of the conditions (and politics) that affect what we eat.

So where does that leave old-fashioned peanut butter?

Too often, people regard it as a throwback, a childish relic, an emergency food with good protein and shelf life, suitable for a blizzard or extended power outage. In other words, it’s a food with purpose, even if eating it isn’t high on the list.

But peanut butter is so much more: It’s the ultimate blend of salty and sweet, better than candy, the perfect solo act. In combination with jam, it’s better still. 

If you haven’t eaten a PB&J sandwich in recent memory, do yourself a favor. As you’ve surely seen in the grocery aisle, peanut butter now comes in a dozen self-righteous variations, some more flavorful than others. So slather a non-GMO, organic version on the artisanal bread of your choice. 

Or go retro, as I do, and revert to the Skippy or Jif of your youth. Close your eyes and take a bite. The reward is twofold:  A rich, complex grown-up treat that’s far better than you recall, along with a vintage piece of your past.   

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays, and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News.