About a month ago, I posted a meme on Facebook about peanut butter. Along with the photo, I said this: “The most U.S. American part of me — peanut butter! How many years have I been deprived of peanut butter by living abroad? I’d estimate seven!!! But now it is available in all those places.”
The post received so much response, that I thought I should write further about my journey with peanut butter. Needless to say, it is one of my favorite foods.
I grew up in a working-class family with 11 children. Because of the number of children, we had few luxuries, but there was always a plentiful supply of peanut butter. Our dessert usually consisted of one slice of bread folded over with peanut butter on one side and jam on the other. My siblings would tease me that I developed a system of holding the folded slice of bread in my palm to hide the number of slices I had consumed. I developed my love of peanut butter early on.
My first experience with no peanut butter came when I spent two-and-a-quarter years in Honduras as a volunteer. From time to time, family would visit other volunteers and bring along peanut butter, but it was usually guarded better than Fort Knox. The Bay Islands where I worked had many residents who had relatives in the U.S., and sometimes they would bring peanut butter along on their visits, and knowing me, they kindly shared some. These opportunities were few and far between, so the craving for peanut butter only increased with these short-lived temptations. Of course, I never found peanut butter to be a good spread for the ubiquitous tortilla. I’m sure some Americans would disagree with me.
My next experience without my favorite food was the year I spent in Switzerland and Germany learning the language and getting married. At the time, there was no peanut butter available in stores, so I just did without, although I remember a trip to Holland where peanut butter was served with breakfast. I was in heaven for the two mornings I was there. I almost thought I had married someone from the wrong country, especially since Menno Simons was Dutch. I wonder if peanut butter helped him write the first theological treatises for Mennonites?
Next, I was off to Mexico with my family for a three-year stint with Mennonite Central Committee. They had peanut butter available in the large supermarket stores in Guadalajara, although in very small almost un-American jars. However, that was a two-hour drive from where we lived, and we got there only about every two months. I had heard that some other innovative MCCers in other countries, starved for peanut butter, had made their own.
Since there were plenty of wonderful peanuts available where we lived, we decided that was what we should do. It was a steep learning curve, and we burned out at least two blenders in the process. It took a lot of effort to be able to have my prized food available. Oh, the sacrifices for kingdom work.
After returning to the U.S., we decided to spend summers with my wife’s family in Switzerland so that our children could get to know their Swiss relatives. We took peanut butter along. It was now available in stores in bigger cities, but they were far removed from where we lived and were not only expensive, but the jars were only big enough to load up a few slices of bread.
I tried to interest my relatives in this favorite staple of most U.S. Americans. My mother-in-law was quite interested in this food that so beguiled her son-in-law, so rather than spreading it on a piece of bread she decided to taste a spoonful straight from the jar. By the expression on her face, it was clear that she found it less than tasty, but she smiled and lied how good it was. Wearing dentures didn’t help, the stickiness of the delightful cream stuck to the top of her denture and nearly caused them to fall out of her mouth. Needless to say, she didn’t try any more. Secretly I was glad; there would be more for my consumption during the months we were there, so long as I could keep it away from my children. It wasn’t hard since they were more interested in the Nutella, which at the time we didn’t have at home.
My final international experience with this delightful nourishment of the gods was in Mexico. I was leading a group of 25 students on a study abroad program. We were hosted by a church in Mexico City and needed to pack a lunch for a day trip. Our hosts wanted to make “tortas” for our group, a Mexican specialty somewhat like submarines, but better, in my opinion. I had traveled with this group for nearly a month, and I knew that one student couldn’t eat this, and another one couldn’t eat that, along with a whole host of picky eaters. I told our hosts to simply make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; that it would be something everyone would eat, and little would be thrown away. Our hosts were disappointed but understanding.
We set up an assembly line and made some 40 sandwiches with the main ingredient being the heavenly spread. True to form, four students requested sandwiches without jam, but NO ONE, requested a sandwich without peanut butter. There is probably no other food that defines U.S. Americans better than peanut butter.
Why is it so few other peoples in the world eat peanut butter? Why do U.S. Americans love peanut butter so much? Practically every other U.S. specialty — hamburgers, hot dogs, Coca Cola, etc. — are found in every corner of the globe. Why not peanut butter?
Don Clymer recently retired as an assistant professor in the language and literature department at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is a writer, spiritual director and leader of intercultural programs in Guatemala and Mexico. He blogs at Klymer Klatsch, where this originally appeared.