Heading up to the park at the Menil Collection to enjoy a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I had, of all things, just had lengthy correspondence with family members about the esoteric art of peanut butter sandwich construction. Growing up as children of depression-era parents, peanut butter was a staple of their school lunches, and the monotony required creativity on the part of my grandmother. An array of jams and jellies were of course employed, sliced bananas showed up often, and marshmallow was a real treat. What I could never wrap my head around, however, could scarcely believe existed, was the peanut butter and pickle that my dad recalls rather more fondly than my uncle, who was forced to yield and cry “mercy!” by leaving a note for his mother placed deftly in his lunchbox beseeching, “Please! No more peanut butter and pickle!”
Validating this bit of sandwich lore, the whole familial exchange was prompted by a story run on NPR as part of their Sandwich Monday series, covering no less a specimen than the peanut butter and pickle. My father’s clan, having endured such hardship as children – toting their lunchpails to school full of PB&P uphill both ways and into the wind while wearing onions on their belts – grew not only into adults of impeccable character but also veritable sommeliers of peanut butter pairing. The intricacies of bread choice, the vagaries of peanut butter brands, the hierarchies of fruit jellies: all depths were plumbed. I knew I was crossing a bridge too far when my elders began ruminating on the proper way to spread the peanut butter in order to retain the added honey, or implementing bacon. They are peanut butter ninjas to my modest green belt.
When confronted with such nightmarish tales, I must relinquish my own bitterness over the pimiento cheese that would show up sporadically in my lunches. I had it pretty good. But a high point was always on Saturdays, after dad finished mowing the lawn and my brother and I “helped” by jumping in the leaf pile he had just spent an hour raking. He would make us PB&J on toasted bread with just a soupçon of butter, creamy peanut butter, and always apple jelly. It’s a recipe I still use to this day, and couldn’t help but recreate when I walked up to the window at the Monster PBJ truck.
If you’ve been to a Which Wich? location around town, you’ll be familiar with the procedure at Monster PBJ. Take a brown paper bag from the stack at the counter and start marking off your selections, beginning with 1, 2, or 3 slices of white, wheat, or gluten-free bread. The endless permutations begin as you choose from peanut, almond, or cashew butter; apple, blueberry, or strawberry jam; and fresh slices of apple, banana, or strawberry. Since the nuts are ground in-house for the spreads, they are natural tasting and less sugary than the jarred grocery store brands, so you can satisfy that sweet tooth by adding agave nectar, honey, or Nutella. To complete your childhood flashback, you can even have the crusts removed and the sandwich cut on the vertical, diagonal, or into four mini-squares. Grilling your construction is an option, but a rhetorical one in my book. You want this done.
My Saturday-Afternoon-Special was delicious on two slices of toasted white bread with peanut butter, apple jam, apple slices, and honey. The double apple combo may have been a bit redundant, and in retrospect I might have gone with banana, but a touch of sweetness from the honey played in perfect harmony with the other notes. My gluten-tolerant-but-resistant partner got a three slice monster with almond butter, blueberry jam, banana slices, and Nutella. What do you want me to say? You know it was gooey bliss. Bananas are the backbone of most fruit smoothies, so they’ll get along with any of the jams, and the hazelnut Nutella complimented the almond butter superbly. The truck also offers a selection of baked and natural potato chips in case you, like we did, need a bit of saltiness to play off the sweet.
Monster PBJ is perfect for kids and for those who want to feel like kids again. It’s a healthy, all-natural choice too, except perhaps for that addictively sweet Nutella. With the myriad choices available, every generation can recreate their favorite childhood sandwich.
Pickle, however, is not an option.