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Peanut Butter Neglect

For a lonely, only child, an invitation to someone’s house for lunch was both a social opportunity and an anthropological experience. In my study, I was amazed to find that many mothers served what I thought of as the white lunch: a tall glass of milk with a sandwich on white bread.

It was a mixed blessing. I hated the milk, but the sandwich was an exotic delight. Between perfect identical white spongey layers, I’d find a thin strip of something pink. It didn’t look anything like a sandwich at my house.

When we became big kids in middle school, we ate in a cafeteria. Suddenly, even lunch could be a source of embarrassment. I was measured against what “everybody else” had in their lunchbox. Yet again, I did not measure up.

Everybody else’s lunch had a perfect white square that floated out of a small individual sandwich bag. The popular girls in my class had waxed paper bags.

The white square would be cut in half, to reveal two perfect bands, one violet and one creamy brown. I admired how evenly the grape jelly would saturate the white sponge, moistening it just enough to make it edible. The creamy peanut butter was applied with expert strokes that stretched it all the way to the corners, just like on TV. Most admirably, this sandwich remained stable when bitten.

How could I get my Mother to reproduce this? She grew up across the Atlantic in a land bereft of peanut butter, white bread and grape jelly. For her, assimilation had already turned out to be a cruel trick. What could she possibly know about fitting in?

I’d inhale deeply before venturing into my disheveled paper bag. First, the sandwich bag was all wrong. It could be any plastic bag that found its way into the house, usually cradling my Dad’s stiff shirt or the Tribune. These bags were huge, unwieldy and, by the time they reached the cafeteria, sticky inside and out. The sandwich didn’t float out— often the bag would have to be removed from the sandwich. After this surgery, my hands, sometimes up to the forearms, would be sticky and dangerous, attracting napkins and transferring permanent purple ooze. (Finally my mother did discover Baggies—a great relief for both of us. I could sacrifice the finer point of waxed paper.)

But then the really embarrassing part emerged—the sandwich. This was made of two irregular slices of hard, seed-laden, black bread. They received uneven applications of chunky peanut butter, and slid against each other like restless tectonic plates. Moments into the bite, the bread released its magma: a writhing core of European fruit preserves. Black current seeds would spill over the rubbery crusts onto the tray. The odd strawberry or rind oozed and slithered across brown mountains and valleys, sometimes shooting right out onto the table: suburban failure.

This sandwich reconciled my mother’s struggle perfectly. I pleaded for peanut butter sandwiches. But my immigrant Mother feared that serving peanut butter to her only child was a sign of laziness, or worse, cheapness. However, fruit preserves! Now here was something a European could take pride in, embellish, indulge. She could atone for her peanut butter neglect.

I ate it. Of course I ate it; it was delicious.The nutty mixture of grains and seeds augmented the peanut butter, worthy ally to the large, carefully selected fruits.

I ate it and struggled to control it. I stole glances at the popular kids eating their cool, calm amethyst beauties.

I’d give Mom more instruction tonight. Tomorrow I might have one less thing to be self-conscious about. Or not.