Restaurant Style PB & J
By Lauren DerrickI've always been a bit of a foodie.
You may think that it would have been impossible for me to be a foodie as a young child, living in various trailer parks as we followed my dad's jobs on the drill rigs all over the western United States. What could I have possibly known about food? What could I possibly have cared?
But I did care. When your family changes houses, babysitters, day cares, preschools, grocery stores, and play date friends every few months, the constants in your life become very important. Food was one of those constants. Sure, there were times that we were living off of WIC checks and rabbits poached from the neighbor’s garden (I'm sure my dad thought he was doing the neighbors a favor). But my parents always made sure we had food.
My mom had a lot of respect for the food we had, however we came by it, and cooked it expertly. The food choices weren't always great, but that just means that you learn to appreciate the good stuff.
My mom swears up and down that the only reason I'm alive today is because of peanut butter and jelly. Thank heavens I wasn't allergic to peanuts. I might have ended up even scrawnier than I already was. She thinks I was a picky eater. I disagree. I was a young, though economically challenged, foodie.
And the nice thing about peanut butter and jelly is that it's fairly easy to get right.
Wait. So you didn't know that there was a wrong way to do peanut butter and jelly?
We never went out to eat at nice places. Probably the only reason we ever ate out at all was because either both of my parents were working during the day or we were traveling. More than the trailer we lived in and the little motel-like houses, I remember the little diners and bars that we'd find ourselves in—sometimes long after the sun had gone down. They had a smell to them. It was a tired smell, like the food really wanted to be good but had already given up and gone cold because it was just too tired. Or maybe that was just me being tired.
The waitresses all seemed to feel that way too. Their eyes were sympathetic—a young, small-town couple and their little girl out late at night and needing a warm meal. But they too were tired. Besides, bars and small-town diners didn't usually have a ton of good meals for little kids. Especially for picky eaters. At least, not back in the day.
I remember ordering peanut butter and jelly, late at night, and feeling a nervous anticipation and a bit of excitement when my mom mentioned that they had my sandwiches on the menu. I remember sizing the place up. Would this be a place where they served dry bread and spread on so much jelly that it would ooze out of the sandwich and make my fingers all sticky? Or would they have a pillow-soft white Wonder Bread miracle hiding in their kitchen with a healthy layer of cool salty peanut butter to balance the sweet grape jelly? This was always the question. Either they knew how to make it right or they didn't. Would they bring my meal to me in a little red plastic basket lined with layered waxy paper, a side of warm french fries as an added bonus? Or would it come plain and simple, on a cold and boring plate? Even back then I knew that there was a right way and a wrong way to serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
I'd wait, anxious. My mom saved packets of Zesta crackers or mini crunchy breadsticks to keep in her purse whenever she got a salad somewhere. Appetizers for her little budding foodie. I'd munch through her cracker supply ravenously, all the while wondering whether I'd actually be able to enjoy my sandwich when it came. But we'd run out of crackers, and my stomach would growl. I'd fidget. I'd ask for something to draw with. I'd ask if there was anything else I could eat.
There were coffee creamers. The glorious little black-wire basket filled with white plastic cups no bigger than the tip of my dad’s thumb. My parents would gently peel back the top and let me sip the cream out of them—but not too many. It tasted better than milk. I'd imagine what it would be like to have a whole cup of the stuff. Why didn't they have these at the grocery stores?
I'd stick my tongue into the empty white cup, just in case I'd missed anything. It always surprised me how easily the little scalloped cups crumpled in my fingers once the cream was gone. Smoosh.
It was the crackers, the crunchy sesame bread sticks, and the coffee creamer that got me through until the sandwich finally arrived. I'd feel the bread to see if it felt soft or dry. They were always cut across. That's the only right way to do it, after all. Any place that didn't know that much was purely a lost cause. I'd inspect the cross section of the sandwich to ensure that I could see all the layers. I had to make sure that both slices of bread had peanut butter so that the jelly wouldn't soak into the bread. If only one side had peanut butter then I'd have to eat the sandwich before the bread began to turn purple. When that happened, there was no safe place to put your hands on the sandwich without getting sticky.
I was a peanut butter and jelly expert, a jelly connoisseur. Don’t get me started on grape vs. strawberry jelly. It wasn’t going to make or break the meal, but I did care.
I always ordered peanut butter and jelly when it was an option, because of all the foods on any menu, I knew it was the thing that they were most likely to get right. And usually, if you go out to eat and order a peanut butter sandwich at a restaurant, then they do get it just right. Pillow-soft white bread, perfect amount of peanut butter on each slice, jelly in the middle that only squishes out a tiny bit. Sandwich cut crosswise into two triangles, but everyone knows that.
I liked chicken, but only if it was warm and tender. It couldn't be dried out or cold. It couldn't be too spicy or have that aftertaste that comes with a breading heavy laden with preservatives. I liked hamburgers, but not American cheese. Seriously though, who likes American cheese? Also, mustard and mayonnaise were disgusting abominations that made the burger bun soggy and distracted from the flavor of the meat. I could tolerate ketchup, but only if it was the proper amount.
When a small child goes to a diner or fast-food joint, those are usually the choices. Of course there's the occasional macaroni and cheese option, which is usually just Kraft macaroni and cheese. My mom did it better than most of the restaurants—and she always served hers warm. Out of respect for the food. Grilled cheese could be good, but there was often a very high chance that they were going to make it with American cheese, and that was just plain wrong. Kids pizza was never any good at small-town restaurants. They never served it warm enough, and it never had enough cheese. Often they put pepperoni on it, which I didn't like because it was too spicy. Their spaghetti meals always left much to be desired. Transgressions ranged from over-cooked pasta that fell apart when you twirled it to having no meat in the sauce at all. The sauce was often terrible, too. My mother's spaghetti was much better.
In short, when going to these lower-quality restaurants that clearly didn't know how to prepare delicious food like my mother did, I gambled on what I knew to be the safest option. I was disappointed from time to time. Sometimes the bread was old and dry or they had the audacity to use scratchy wheat bread instead of the appropriate white Wonder Bread. Sometimes it was made by someone who clearly didn't know what they were doing, who didn't get enough peanut butter in there or who, out of sheer ignorance, slathered grape jelly directly onto the bread, allowing the sticky goo to soak through and eventually soil my fingers. Sometimes these things happened, but the overwhelming majority of the time they got it right.
Today I began the process of making a peach sorbet. I pureed seven peaches, purchased from the vendor I trust most at the farmers market. I'm convinced that he sells the best peaches in the state—and they're only available at the end of August and sometimes the very beginning of September. They are called Diamond Princess Peaches, and they taste like heaven. I also made a simple syrup infused with fresh rosemary to add sweetness and just a note of sophistication. For the kids, I always cook their dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets in the toaster oven instead of the microwave. They used to be part of a living animal, and meat deserves respect when you cook it, even if it’s just nuggets. I make minestrone with fresh vegetables, served piping hot with real shredded Parmesan. I do my spaghetti with ricotta, mini pepperonis, and mild Italian sausage mixed right into the sauce—because once you've had it that way, how can you ever go back?
As a mother of three, I keep looking for ways to save time. Once my husband suggested that we simplify our meals. More pasta-roni, less minestrone. I haven’t quite been able to make myself do it. Not on purpose, anyway.
Really, that’s what makes a foodie. That sheer appreciation for making the food—which you have to eat anyway to survive—sparkle. The love for the people who will eat it. It's that little bit of extra love and effort that makes eating into a pleasure, into a social experience. I love watching my kids come to the table and seeing their eyes light up when they see what’s there. I listen to their happy eating noises like music. (Do other kids have a low happy moan that goes off when they like their food?) I also sulk like a wet cat when they complain about their food, either because I feel like I’ve betrayed the food by not preparing it well enough or because my children are clearly too spoiled or unrefined to fully appreciate a properly prepared meal.
I think back to those late nights in the car before my parents finally took the dive on a mortgage. Those days were often full of uncertainty. Where would we live? Would there be kids living nearby to play with? What time would we get there? Once we were settled, I would wonder who was going to watch me that day? Would there be time to play? I knew I could always look forward to meals, though. Even on the road when we had somewhere to be, I knew there would be lunch and dinner, and I cared deeply about what it was going to be. And for me, the three or four-year-old foodie, there was no greater comfort at lunch or dinner time than restaurant style PB & J.