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Peanut Butter Takes On an Unlikely Best Friend

Posted by on December 1, 2012


Peanut Butter Takes On an Unlikely Best Friend

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times


Published: October 22, 2012

LIKE Krazy and Ignatz, Carville and Matalin, Cupid and Psyche or Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, the peanut butter and pickle sandwich is one of those unlikely pairings that shouldn’t work, but does.



That’s how I’ve always felt, anyway. I’ve been happily eating these distinctive little sandwiches for years. The vinegary snap of chilled pickle cuts, like a dash of irony, against the stoic unctuousness of peanut butter. The sandwich is a thrifty and unacknowledged American classic.

My father passed them down to me. Peanut butter and pickle sandwiches got him through law school at West Virginia University. I’ve come to consider them the work-at-home writer’s friend. The ingredients are always there for you, waiting loyally in the pantry when more glamorous lunch options (cold cuts, leftovers) aren’t returning your calls.

The PB&P has been a minority enthusiasm in America for generations, lingering just under the radar. The sandwiches appeared on lunch-counter menus during the Great Depression and in extension-service cookbooks in the 1930s and ’40s in recipes that generally called for a few spoonfuls of pickle relish. A lot of people’s grandmothers used to eat them.

These days, they’re a cult item. Kinsey Millhone, the fictional private investigator in Sue Grafton’s alphabet series of mysteries, is probably America’s best-known devotee.

Below that, there’s a consistent but low-level Internet buzz about the combination, just as there is about the other unlikely things people like to marry with peanut butter and place between bread slices: mayonnaise, olives, thick onion slices (this was Hemingway’s favorite sandwich), horseradish, bacon, Marmite (in England) and Vegemite (in Australia), to name but a few.

Each of these concoctions has its merits, especially Hemingway’s version, though it gives you breath that will chase away children, pets and all women who aren’t Martha Gellhorn. The Elvis sandwich (peanut butter, banana and bacon) isn’t a calamity, either. But compared with the PB&P, the ne plus ultra of the genre, all I can say about each of these pretenders is, as Elvis himself put it: return to sender.

Why can’t the peanut butter and pickle sandwich get a little respect? A few weeks ago, I began calling and e-mailing smart food people — chefs, journalists, cookbook writers, editors — to get their take on the combination. I expected to get some high-fives from this crowd, the way I would in book circles if I had unearthed an unjustly neglected writer, another Dawn Powell.

Instead, I got crickets. Long, baffled silences. Not one of the people I spoke with had even tried a PB&P. A few reacted with outright disgust, the way people did when they heard that Julia Roberts had married Lyle Lovett.

“Eew,” e-mailed Virginia Willis, the author of “Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories From Three Generations of Southern Cooking.” Ms. Willis added, “Sounds kind of scary.” A friend of mine, an editor at a major national food monthly, wrote me back to say, “Even at 7 months pregnant, I’ve never had that craving.” Another well-known cookbook writer suggested I talk to Guy Fieri, the Sammy Hagar of TV chefs.

Guy Fieri? That’s harsh, dude.

My desperation increasing, I reached out to two men who, between them, know pretty much everything there is to know about eating in America, at least east of the Mississippi: Ed Levine, founder of the Web site Serious Eats, and John T. Edge, the director of theSouthern Foodways Alliance and the guru of Dixie eats. (He also contributes regularly to The New York Times.)

Neither of these guys had eaten a PB&P, either. (“Slackers,” I muttered to myself.) Mr. Edge declared that, despite all the uncouth yet awesome preparations Southerners have for pickles (deep-frying them, coloring them with Kool-Aid flavor packets), the peanut butter and pickle sandwich is definitely not a Southern thing. Flipping through his mental Rolodex, he sounded stumped for a bit. He finally sent me to talk to a young chef in Minneapolis who does a peanut butter and grilled jalapeño appetizer, which sounds tasty but is not the same thing at all.

Unlike Mr. Edge, Mr. Levine volunteered to lose his PB&P virginity, pretty much right on the spot. About the peanut butter sandwich he made with bread-and-butter pickles, he declared, “I could see eating that again.” About a peanut butter with garlic dill pickles sandwich, he said, “Not so much.”

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