Before a recent trip to the Middle East, I took requests from friends there for American items not easily procured in those parts. My pirated booty included eight jars of Arrowhead Mills Organic Creamy Valencia peanut butter, several contraband American television-series box sets and maple syrup. When my lost luggage was pronounced MIA, I panicked a little. Would I ever see my favorite shoes again? Would they confiscate my stash of sensationalistic political literature? When the suitcase was finally delivered to my hotel, it was 10 pounds lighter and of all the precious, rumpled contents, only the peanut butter was missing.
My mother's taste for clandestine fluffernutter sandwiches is the casualty of an immigrant childhood, wherein her tireless mother sent six kids to school with hearty, but purportedly embarrassing, garlic-scented lunches. My mother longed instead for bland, odorless American food; bologna, Wonder Bread, Miracle Whip. As a youngster, my daily lunches consisted of pita bread, damp and disintegrating after a morning-long sunbath in the recesses of a paper bag, spread plainly with Planters-brand peanut butter and the rank bouquet of an off-gassing banana; thus, that iconic item, peanut butter, seemed a thing of the past once my lunch bag days were behind me.
Then, in my late teens, I was presented, at the behest of a chef, a sandwich of whole wheat bread, freshly-ground peanut butter, sliced bananas and honey. Natural peanut butter, it seemed, was grainily intense, nothing like the commercial stuff I'd been reared on, which was thick with hydrogenated fats that gave it the waxy texture of canned cake frosting. This sandwich was mind-bendingly good.
Ah, peanut butter: perhaps the only protein adored by vegans and the meat-and-potatoes crowd alike. It's arguably the indispensable fabric of the American gastronomical quilt.
Here in Santa Fe, the most glorious celebration of this blessed union of flavors can be found on a good day at Harry’s Roadhouse (96 Old Las Vegas Hwy., 505-989-4629), in a banana layer cake, towering and resplendent, with dark chocolate ganache and peanut butter frosting.
As a kid, the only candy that interested me involved peanut butter—candy that’s mysteriously consistent and easy to spot from afar by its orange packaging: peanut butter M&M’s, peanut butter Twix, hefty Colt’s Bolts and, of course, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. At Chocolatesmith (1807 Second St., 505-473-2111), the peanut butter fingers (and the Pecos Peanut Butter—the same bar with a spine-tingling lick of ancho and chipotle) put to shame their drugstore equivalents—the Butterfinger or its close relative Clark bar.
In The Ultimate Peanut Butter Book, writers Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough make admirable headway as far as the myriad uses for America’s favorite spread go. There are others out there whose innovation and obsession is breaking peanut butter into new territory. PB Loco and Peanut Butter and Co. both make dark and white chocolate-blended trans-fat-free peanut butters that can be ordered online, as well as variations with everything from sun-dried tomatoes and sun-ripened apricot to chocolate-chip cookie dough and cinnamon-raisin. A signature sandwich at one of PB Loco’s café’s contains Asian Curry Spice peanut butter, cucumbers and pineapple.
I discovered my bliss, however, in a creation suggested in an online food forum when I lived across the street from an Indian bakery: hot fresh naan, peanut butter, sriracha, chopped cilantro, shaved red onion, squeeze of lime and a fried egg with a runny yolk.
What would the world be without boiled peanuts? Gado-gado? African groundnut stew? Peanut butter and chutney sandwiches? Tune-Up Café’s (1115 Hickox St., 505-983-7060) Nutella and peanut butter sandwich cookies? The peanut butter gelato ice cream sandwiches at Cafe Cafe (500 Sandoval St., 505-466-1391)?
?Approximately 75 percent of American kitchens have peanut butter in them. Commercial peanut butter is not highly perishable, and I remember noticing aisles of supermarkets in Inuvik, a small town in the Canadian Arctic, stacked with displays of the tubbed Kraft product.
Small plastic containers of the stuff are also a ubiquitous mainstay of Québécois diners, where it is nestled in with the butter and margarine. Peanut butter’s value as a relatively stable product has not gone unnoticed. To the advantage of many, Plumpy’nut, a peanut butter-based food formulated by French scientist André Briend, is now being used for famine relief.
Inspired by Nutella, it tastes like sweetened peanut butter, but it packs a caloric and nutritional punch. Project Peanut Butter distributes Plumpy, as it’s often called, to malnourished Malawian children in more than 20 nutritional rehabilitation centers; the rehabilitation rate is 89.9 percent. Unfortunately, about 1 percent of the US population is allergic to peanuts; The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that peanut allergy is the most common cause of food-related death.
Sometimes I’ll ask someone if they like peanut butter, and they’ll say that they prefer some other nut butter—almond, usually. That’s all well and good, but it’s not the same thing. Working for peanuts? Sounds good to me.