Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Peanut Butter & Jellyfish - On Family, Food and George Washington Carver

This essay first appeared in 20-Something Magazine.

Like always, my father and I hanging out at Belmar Beach. (1984)
The first time I tasted peanut butter I was a baby, almost one. My mother and I were sprawled out together on a large blanket on Belmar, New Jersey’s 14th Street Beach. I loved that beach, even then, before I could really process it all.

On that warm summer morning,  my mother stripped off my diaper — this was 1984, when the presence of bare-assed children in a public space didn’t freak out everybody — and she let me crawl around in the sand. I splashed at the waves as they spilled onto the shore. The way my mother tells it, I was playing in the wet sand when I found a shiny clear blob that had washed up. I picked it up and, naturally, tried to eat it. My mother snatched me up before I could swallow more than a small bite of the jellyfish.

Rightly thinking that I was hungry, she dusted off my naked bum and plopped me down on a beach towel. She fed me mashed banana with a curvy plastic spoon, and I gulped it all down. My mouth hung open in anticipation as she scraped the bottom of the jar for the last bits of pulp. I polished it all off, and I was still hungry. She reached into the little red cooler she always toted onto the beach and pulled out something magical: peanut butter and jelly slathered between two pieces of whole wheat bread. It was hers, but she was offering me a taste.

“Want some PBJ?” she asked.

I stuck my mouth open like a baby bird. Of course I wanted to eat this thing. Had she not just seen my attempt with the jellyfish? Trying new cuisine wasn’t an issue for me.

“Think he’ll eat it?” asked my father, slouched back in a beach chair, sunglasses pressed against his forehead, a book opened on his lap.

“Of course he’ll eat it,” she said.

She tore off a corner of the sandwich and placed it into my mouth. I can only rely on my mother’s memory of this event, but she says it was a momentous one. My eyes rolled back in my head. I smiled and gurgled, my cries muffled by peanut paste. After a few more bites I fell back onto the towel, naked, nourished and happy.

“Boz, look,” my mother said to my father. He looked from his book to his son, who was resting peacefully on the towel. “I think he likes it.”

I did.

My life-long love affair with peanut butter had begun.

God bless you, George Washington Carver. From Wikipedia.
The botanist-inventor George Washington Carver is generally credited with introducing peanut butter to the mainstream American palate. While peanuts in a buttery form have been around since the Incas, it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th Century that peanut butter started to seriously catch on in the U.S.

In the 1880s, Carver began promoting peanuts as a soil-enriching alternative to the monoculture of cotton, which had depleted much of the soil in Southern farms. Carver discovered more than 300 uses for this delectable nut, and even more for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes. His other products and inventions were all well and good, I’m sure, and this Peanut Prophet should be remembered fondly for developing all those peanut-based cosmetics and industrial lubricants.

But his most profound and delicious contribution to history was his tireless promotion of peanut butter.

Throughout my childhood peanut butter kept me fueled. I had endless amounts of energy, thanks in no small part to PBJs. I started bodyboarding when I was four. The quintessential beach bum family, we were in the sand and sea every single day from late spring, when the water was cold and biting, to early fall, when the waves soaked up warmth from the tropical swells.

I’d wait as my mother lathered me up with sunscreen, then I’d take off on my board. The temperature of the water didn’t matter — I jumped in just the same. I’d ride waves for hours on end, exerting a terrible amount of energy while duck-diving under whitewater, paddling back and forth between the two jetties, searching tirelessly for the spot with the biggest breaks.

Usually after four or five hours, I’d sit up on my board and look back at the beach. My mother was always there beside the lifeguard stand waving her arms above her head like she was trying to get the attention of a passing airplane.

This gesture meant one thing: it was peanut butter time.

I’d throw my board into some whitewater and ride it all the way to the sand. Hopping off as I reached the shore, I’d bolt up to the beach towel my mother had laid out. Once I sat down, she’d stick out her hand, careful not to squish the sandwich.

I’d go for the crust first. I never understood why other kids hated crust. Sometimes it was oat bread, with a crust coated in dried oat bits. Other times it was just plain wheat bread, but the crust was still good. Eating the crust first prolonged the anticipation. After I nibbled the sandwich into a dull oval, I’d close my eyes and take the smallest bite into the peanut butter and jelly. I’d savor the nutty flavor, the way the salt feels almost chewy mixed in with the oil.

I ate one a day for years.

At the age of eight or nine, I started on two sandwiches for lunch. After I was full, I ran right back in the water for more waves. I never bothered with that crap about a half-hour waiting period. The waves were calling and my stomach would just have to deal with it. This cycle of eating and surfing went on for years on end. And I loved every minute of it.

The type of peanut butter never really mattered. I never took sides in the Crunchy vs. Creamy Debate. This is almost heretical among peanut butter enthusiasts, I know, but I didn’t care. I liked when my mother mixed it up on me. Acme brand was a staple, crunchy or creamy, whatever was on sale. Generic brand or not, it didn’t matter. I’ve come to the understanding that there is no such thing as bad peanut butter. I’ve loved every jar of paste made from roasted peanuts that I’ve tasted. (Disclaimer: I’ve never gotten sick from various breakouts of E. coli that have been traced back to peanut butter producers. Thank goodness. The tragic irony and betrayal would be just too much for me to handle.)

Belmar Beach, New Jersey, 1986. 
My mother sometimes bought Jiff Creamy, the most all-American of peanut spreads. But she always bought healthy bread: whole wheat, oat, cinnamon raisin, seven grain. And those hearty slabs seemed to beg for crunchy style. When Paul Newman came out with his Newman’s Own brand of peanut butter, it was all that my mother bought for a solid six months. It was a bit pricier, but she splurged for it anyway. She loved Paul Newman, his old films, his left-wing politics and the fact that he donated all his profits to charities. That was all fine by me, but it was the stuff in the jar that mattered most. And — may he rest in peace — Paul Newman oversaw the production of some damn good peanut butter. And I feel good that a solid amount of the Baker family’s money went through his company to various charitable organizations.

There ya go. Peanut butter proves itself yet again.

If the brand and style of peanut butter weren’t an issue for me, the other ingredients in the sandwich mattered even less. My mother was a fan of Concord grape jelly, that thick, unnaturally purple goop that comes in barrel-shaped plastic jars. Occasionally I found my sandwiches filled with strawberry preserves from farmer’s markets or Amish food stores. Those were always good. But no matter what type of jam, I always told my mother to go easy with it — jam took away from the flavors of the peanut butter. Sometimes my mother would surprise me by coating one of the slices with whipped honey. Those PBH days were always exciting. And, even though she took pride in feeding her family healthy foods, every once in a very long while she would put some marshmallow fluff or Nutella on a sandwich. I would eat until I was full, sticky and content.

Peanut butter is a reoccurring theme in my first (and still unpublished) novel, Broken Bones, which is based on the month I spent hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for people with eating disorders. See, in 2008, I nearly died of self-induced starvation.

I was suffering through untreated depression, anxiety and uncontrollable compulsive fits. Then my wife and high-school sweetheart bailed on me. So I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I had no desire to be nourished, not even by my beloved peanut butter.

I had no clue depression could beat me so brutally. That bastard was even strong enough to break the bond between me and PBJs.

I’m 5’10, and when I found myself in a Washington, DC, emergency room I weighed 95 pounds. I couldn’t create coherent sentences or remember things for more than a few seconds. My blood pressure and heart rate were dangerously low. I couldn’t metabolize food and my kidneys and liver were closing in on failure. The E.R. doctors said I was too far gone for them. I needed extensive rehabilitation.

That’s when my old friend peanut butter rose up to save me. No exaggeration: I am alive, thanks in part, to peanut butter.

While in treatment at the Sheppard-Pratt Center for Eating Disorders, a psychiatric rehabilitation facility north of Baltimore, I ate a lot of peanut butter. I ate a lot, period — this was, after all, a facility designed to pack pounds onto starved people — but I looked forward to peanut butter the most. I slathered it on my English muffins and toast during breakfast. I requested an individual tub for each slice of French Toast. Whenever a PBJ was on the menu, I chose it without a second thought. For dessert I’d get the peanut butter cookies whenever they were available. One day we had peanut butter brownies, another time we had chocolate cake with peanut butter topping. All these peanut-packed foods helped me gain 35 pounds in one month.

The day I got out of the hospital, I ate a Reese’s Fast Break bar just to keep the scales tipping in the right direction.

Out of the hundreds of products and foodstuffs he developed, George Washington Carver only applied for a few patents. He made a very good living as a researcher, especially for an African American in the 1880s and 90s, but he declined the massive fortune that could have been his. “God gave them to me,” he said about his peanut products. “How can I sell them to someone else?”

For Carver, peanut butter wasn’t a commodity he could use to enrich himself. It was heaven-sent, a blessing bestowed on all of us. It was something everyone should savor and enjoy.

What a fucking concept.

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