Sunday, March 15, 2009

Proustian Peanut Butter

Like many kids in the '60s and '70s, I lived on peanut butter sandwiches and Ritz crackers with peanut butter. There were three national brands: Peter Pan, Jif, and Skippy. (There were store brands, too, but my mother was skeptical.) For much of that time, the only option was creamy; crunchy came along later.

My mother's brand was Skippy. But I was a curious kid and wanted to see if we were missing anything, so we tried the others. They were horrible and I never forgot. Jif was sugary sweet and gritty. Peter Pan tasted strongly of peanuts but you could hardly get it to spread without tearing the bread. They were wrong.

"Choosy Mothers Choose Jif" was the first slogan to prove to me that advertisers lie. Learning at a tender age that the ad business was an evil conspiracy had a huge impact on my life. I became immune even to toy ads, and I remain healthily cynical about product claims to this day. (It didn't stop me from working in an ad agency, fresh from college, however. I lasted nine months.) I may owe a lot to Jif, but their peanut butter stinks.

During my hippie-granola, sprout-growing teen years, we tried Smucker's new "natural" peanut butter; I remember our startled disappointment. Who knew that a simple food like peanut butter could taste that lousy and look that gross? To me, any peanut butter without sugar and salt tastes like pulverized cardboard pellets mixed with oil. You'd have to be crazy to really, truly, in your heart-of-hearts prefer it to Skippy.

We recently switched from Skippy Reduced Fat to their Natural Creamy — and I discovered a powerful madeleine. It has the old-fashioned, non-hydrogenated, corn-syrup-free peanut butter flavor of my school years. Every time I taste it, long-lost memories return to me. During one sandwich, I suddenly recalled my ugly 4th-grade desk, before my school had a lunch room. Another sandwich had me visualizing a forgotten, once-loved lunchbox, a psychedlic-swirled, black-and-white oval model with a zipper, which was the last one I had before we switched to paper bags. My Peanuts thermos, always filled with chocolate milk, came floating into my brain unannounced the other day. And I remembered that before my mom upgraded to sandwich bags, she used cleverly folded waxed paper.

A piece of ratty, red-checked oilcloth surfaced in my memory today. I'm not even sure what it was for — maybe my 1st-grade placemat? I can now vividly recall the smell of the classrooms where we ate, not a memory I ever hoped to keep. More happily, I can recall long-lost details of the TastyCakes (and later, the Dolly Madison Goo Goos, Razzies, and Zingers) that always followed the sandwich.

If your mother had taste and made you into a Skippy eater, try their Natural Creamy. It's nothing but peanuts, sugar, salt, and palm oil. Yes, three out of four of its ingredients aren't "healthy" and it's got some saturated fat. But as we know, "healthy" peanut butter tastes like animal feed. This tastes like childhood.

1 comment:

  1. I had totally forgotten about sandwiches in wax paper!

    Oh and our house was a Peter Pan household. These days I prefer Kraft peanut butter. Unfortunately it's not available in the U.S. but we stock up whenever we're in Canada.

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