Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman combs Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
I first bit into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in high school. It was a tentative bite from a friend’s sandwich in the lunchroom, one I declared to be nothing special. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate this lunchbox staple, but in retrospect, it seems impossible for someone born and raised in the American Midwest to have gone 16 years without eating a PB&J. But for some reason, my mom preferred to make me tuna salad, and my dad, peanut butter and honey.
Peanut butter and jelly is considered an inseparable combo in the United States. Search Etsy, and you’ll find not only handmade delectables celebrating that most American flavor combination, but also jewelry, apparel, and romantic greeting cards celebrating their timeless union.
Although it seems like the world didn’t exist before PB&J, the sandwich is only about 100 years old. Someone had to invent peanut butter in the first place, let alone slather it on bread with jelly.
The history of peanut butter starts at least 3,000 years ago in present day Peru, where the Incas ground native peanuts into paste. The results were used as a sauce for meats like chicken and as a flavoring in pork soups, at least after the Europeans showed up and introduced domesticated animals. It’s difficult to know how the native populations used peanuts before then.
Flash forward to the 19th century: Americans are enjoying boiled peanuts and peanut soup, and peanuts are grown as a crop throughout the South. In 1895, a man named John Harvey Kellogg — yes, of Corn Flakes fame — patents a “Process of Preparing Nut Meal.” Kellogg was a vegetarian who actively promoted a meat-free lifestyle, but Kellogg felt that he couldn’t convert a meat-devouring Victorian public without a suitable substitute for animal flesh. His nut butters, including peanut butter, were considered tasty and filling, and he used these butters to produce one of the earliest “meat analogs,” Protose. Even George Washington Carver, in his seminal 1916 paper, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Uses for Human Consumption,” suggests recipes for Mock Chicken and Veal alongside his recommendations for peanut doughnuts and peanut macaroni and cheese.
Kellogg was a masterful promoter of his food ideals, and his health spa, The Battle Creek Sanitarium, became extremely fashionable amongst the upper classes. The rich and famous began making his peanut butters at home and later buying his commercialized version to use as a sandwich spread. This original peanut butter was more like the fresh ground stuff you can get at specialty stores today: thick, sometimes salty, but seldom sweet. It was used in savory combinations as commonly as sweet: with pimentos or watercress in fancy New York City tea rooms, or blended with sweetened condensed milk for better spreadability in the home. The peanut butter and hot sauce sandwich was popular through World War II (it’s making a comeback using Sriracha).
But in November 1901, the match was made in heaven: The Boston Cooking School Magazine, released by the influential, middle-class cooking school of the same name, produced an article titled “Peanuts and Pralines”:
“For variety, some day try making little sandwiches, or bread fingers, of three very thin layers of bread and two of filling, one of peanut paste, whatever brand you prefer, and currant or crab apple jelly for the other. The combination is delicious, and so far as I know, original.”
Cooking journals and cookbooks tend to lag behind what the general public is already doing, but this is the earliest reference known to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and as the author states, “so far as I know, original.”
The greatest advantage of peanut butter was that despite its fancy reputation, it was extremely cheap. It became a great equalizer amongst the classes, and to this day, a PB&J is consumed by rich and poor alike.
September is the perfect time of year to try out the original recipe for PB&J because crabapples are in season. While they are too small and tart for regular consumption, they’re ideal for making jelly, particularly because their peels contain a large quantity of pectin, the chemical that makes jelly gel. Historically, people sometimes threw crabapples in with any jelly to help it set.
I bought my jelly fresh made from Jammin’ with Devyn, who uses wild-harvested fruit like chokeberries and elderberries to make their jelly, and I spread it between bread with smooth ground peanut butter. It tastes just like a peanut butter and jelly should.