Peanut Butter and Jelly – A Cultural Marker

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Experiencing different cultures is one of the travelers most common goals. To see the world and experience the traditions of other people. This is fun, I like doing this too. As an expat in Germany though I end up getting to see my own home culture in a different light. The oddities from the germanic perspective as it were. This week, the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

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The Humble PBnJ Sandwich Described

I know a lot of my readers are indeed from North America. You will definitely know exactly what I am talking about. For the rest of you, here is a description of the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich (or PB&J). It is a sandwich very often given to small children by their parents as a meal. It consists of two pieces of toast bread (usually the fluffy white stuff) one side covered in peanut butter and the other in jelly. Reuniting the bread creates the sandwich. We always had it with chips or pretzels when I was a kid.

PB&J is more a theme than a specific sandwich. Traditional PB&J seems to be grape jelly, but really any will do. I quite like the blueberry jelly here in Germany and my mom usually made it from apple. Add to that the differences in peanut butter and those wacky health conscious people that use wheat bread. Other variations include:

  • No Crusts :  Having the crusts of the bread cut off.
  • Potato Chips Inside : Once the PB&J is assembled insert ridged potato chips into the middle to add a crunch. Only do this at eating time, as the chips will get soggy.
  • Fluffernutter : A very distant cousin of the PB&J replaces the jelly with marshmallow cream.
  • Honeynutter : Ok, I made up that name, but a more close cousin than the fluffernutter is the idea of using honey instead of jelly. It is more sweet so more like a dessert than a meal.

So what, it’s a sandwich?

I, like many Americans, grew up eating PB&J sandwiches. They are quick and easy to make. As long as you don’t squish them, they last fine in a lunchbox. Children are picky eaters (and I was one of the worst) and PB&J are both sweet enough to please most kids and can be argued have SOME nutritional value (Peanut butter has protein and jelly is made from fruit.). Picnics and even some restaurants offered them as a kid’s alternative to anything containing too many vegetables.

In my travels, I have made PB&J in most every country that I have spent time in. They are cheap and comforting with the relationship to childhood. I have also not yet met someone that did not grow up in the US or Canada that likes them. My admittedly small study indicates that spending childhood under 6 years of age in the US or Canada greatly increases you risk for liking them. Even long time Americans that had moved there after that age have a greatly reduced rate of desire to slather bread with jelly and peanut butter as a snack.

The thing is, I remember eating probably more of these than anything else as a kid. I doubt I did, but I remember it. So when I am in a foreign place and need comfort food, it is the easiest thing to make. In fact, I will often travel with a jar of peanut butter in my pack knowing I can get bread anywhere and yoink jelly from the breakfast buffet somewhere.

Comfort Food as a Cultural Marker

Before I started traveling, I was naive and expected the entire world to eat and like them. Once I started spending time in other cultures I realized how wrong that was. Most of the Europeans that I have shown PB&Js to find it very odd. The turn their noses up at the idea. I guess this is like us looking at a German putting butter on a ham sandwich.

The base problem is the lack of understanding about peanut butter. There is not a tradition of it here. When I first landed on these shores the peanut butter that you could get was just squished peanuts and was slightly salty. Sure I used it on my PB&Js, but it wasn’t the same. I can understand now how Europeans could have a hard time understanding the idea of sweet preserves with this version of salty peanut butter. Over time things have improved, there are two brands of American style peanut butter in the stores here. One even has both creamy and chunky types. Score for Germany as the ideal destination, it has proper peanut butter.

For those of you not familiar with American peanut butter, it is quite smooth and slightly sweet. It is the texture of Nutella but not that sweet and the flavor is strongly of peanuts rather than chocolate. Creamy is just that smooth, while chunky is smooth with extra bits of peanuts mixed in. The grainy salty peanut butter is not used for PB&Js.

Spreading Culture wherever you go

Being a cultural ambassador is one of those cliches they like to through out in the study abroad briefing meetings. Well, I am often a sandwich ambassador. I will proudly show my sandwich in hostels anywhere I go. I have made PB&J in Vienna using grainy European peanut butter and breakfast jelly inside of Kornspitze (bready Viennese croissants) Using a baguette cut lengthwise is a nice trick too. The jelly doesn’t soak through as fast. As mentioned, I used to bring a jar of peanut butter in my pack when I went traveling. I don’t know if that counts as a liquid nowadays or not.

So I ask you..

North Americans? Do you make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when you travel?

Everyone else? Heard of them? Tried them? Who showed you? Am I wrong in think this is just an American thing?

31 thoughts on “Peanut Butter and Jelly – A Cultural Marker

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  3. As a Brit I have to say Peanut butter and Jam (as we say here) is a REALLY common sandwich filler for kids, but I found it really hard to find reasonably priced peanut butter when I lived in Germany. The stuff I didn’t consider too expensive just tasted like someone had taken salty, bar-snack peanuts and smashed them with a hammer until they had formed a paste. Gross. Still it wasn’t enough to put me off moving back in September!!

    • When did you live here? There is a brand that I can get in the local store that is “American Style” that tastes great. Yeah, there are brands that are literally just salted peanuts smashed. Not so good with jam. Welcome back in September. Where you coming to?

  4. I had PBJs growing up from time to time but have embraced them fully in my 20s and continue to do so!! They’re a staple when I travel 🙂 And sometimes it gets more interesting for onlookers and other travelers because I use gluten free bread and natural peanut butter.

    When I’ve traveled folks from other countries question the PBJ. When I tried Vegemite here in Oz and filmed it, a couple of Aussies decided to take on a PBJ challenge as they’d never had one!

    Here’s to continuing to spread the PBJ love!

    • Good, PBnJ can be a fully normal adult food. The natural PB i can’t deal with. It is too grainy. Well the one brand I remember anyway. Not ever tried gluten-free bread.
      Good on you trying Vegemite. Every time my NZ friends talk about Marmite, I trot out the running joke of “something died on toast, and you want me to eat it??”

  5. Oddly enough, I’ve never eaten a PB&J, and yes, I did grow up in America. No one in my family has had one. There’s just something unappealing about it to me. But I am at the moment craving a simple peanut butter sandwich.

    For me, the fun food to introduce to others is s’mores. We made them while camping in Ireland and at a Fourth of July cookout in Germany, and in both instances our local friends found them to be very, very odd.

    • Wow s’mores. I have totally forgotten about those when writing. I seriously need to find some graham crackers in the US. I had a company Christmas party with a bonfire one year. Someone brought marshmallows and I was teaching people how to roast them on sticks. Noone but me had a clue and kept showing them to me to ask if it was done. No crackers or chocolate, but still it was fun.

  6. Such a great go-to! It just makes me mad that PB is so expensive here! Usually PB is the cheap option in the States and it’s sad that it’s had to turn into a luxury these days, but definitely useful on the road.

    I had some friends in Australia that liked PB (notably Canadian and French ones) and the rest hated it! Some didn’t even know what it was, including my Italian boyfriend!

  7. Great explanation of the PB&J! I always pack a jar when I go to Italy. It is just nice to have something from home, but I also can get sick of all the pizza, pasta,etc. I will have to try out Nutella on my PB&J…sounds delicious.

    • Thanks Suzy. My public speaking classes often had an assignment to explain something. I oddly remember having to stand in front of class explaining how to make a PB&J.
      The comfort food part of it is an aspect that should not be overlooked. I love italian and german food too, but sometimes like you I just get sick of it.

  8. Ahhh…what a great post! During our travels across South America we often couldn’t find PB, and so when we did, we bought a large jar and made space for it in our backpack! It is a traveling staple!!

    • That is so cool to hear that other people carry it around. And to see that it really is both a Canadian and US thing. I had noticed that in some research I did before writing. Not that I was really surprised, but cool to see.

  9. Good stuff, Andrew. We recently ate PB&J at a restuarant in Kuala Lumpur! We never expected to find something like that way out here. It was actually pretty good. 🙂

    Wandering Trader is on point with the PB & Nutella. Very good. We lived off that stuff on a coast to coast Amtrak ride last fall.

    • WOW, PBnJ as far as Malaysia. I am impressed. Was it the same price as the other items? Cheaper or sold at a premium? The big bread slices sound fine as long as they are not the artisan style thick crunchy crust slices. Those are great, but not appropriate for the humble PBnJ.

  10. Great stuff, Andrew. We were at a restauant in Kuala Lumpur recently and they actually had PB&J on the menu, and what a massive sandwich it was! It was made with the biggest slices of bread I think I’ve ever seen.

    I agree with wandering trader about the Nutella, but the way I’ve always had it is just plain PB&Nutella, no jelly. I’m going to have to try the variation.

    • Yes, the toasting is the best. Then the jelly doesn’t soak into the bread and floats on top into the peanut butter. I’m not a fan of bananas in any form, but can at least see how it fits.

  11. This is a great explanation of a PB&J sandwich, Andrew! – Love that you see yourself as a sandwich ambassador!! I should do that more with German food (but if I traveled with some German food it would be Nutella and I wouldn’t want to share it 😉 ) I know that we Germans don’t really get peanut butter, and PB with jelly in the same sandwich – even more odd. My American girlfriend Jess finally got me to give it a try and, surprisingly, it wasn’t all that bad! My favorite kind is the PB&J already mixed in the jar. We traveled with a jar of peanut butter for a while but it’s nothing that we need to have all the time – the occasional dose does it for us. Dani @Globetrottergirls

    • Ugh, the ready made PBnJ in a jar? Wow I had forgotten about that stuff. Grape jelly I imagine right?
      Traveling with PB is great because it goes well with lot of different things, like apple slices or celery. It really is a backpackers friend.
      It has taken me a bit of adjustment to get use to putting butter on sandwiches. Now though, when they only have normal pretzels and sandwiches for breakfast at work (which is weird to see what I think of as lunch food for breakfast) I pass. I will however eat a butter pretzel with the salt scraped off for breakfast. I still prefer sweet, but it is not a bad meal.

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  13. I remember being in a cafe in Berlin in 1994 and the guy behind the counter told me he had something for me, a surprise! He hauled out the tiniest jar of Skippy ever– but such a rare prize in those days! i hadn’t seen pb in ages by that point.

    Here in Shanghai, it’s really easy to get all sorts of pb and all sorts of jam and boy, I’ve made me a lot of sandwiches in China. Major comfort food.

    • Awesome, that is good to hear that China has proper peanut butter. They are so cheap to make (well unless the PB is expensive somehow), which helps on budgets.

  14. Ah, what a great ode to the PB&J! Almost every morning here in Thailand I have a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich. I never ate Nutella when I was little, but it’s a really fantastic addition. And you know what? I never liked jelly on my peanut butter sandwiches. You’re right, though–PB is such a comfort food. We’re lucky that in Bangkok we can get the regular ol’ American stuff (Skippy, etc) very easily. It’s expensive, but it lasts quite some time, so it’s worth it!

    • Ooo yes, I’ve had PB and N too. Almost too sweet for me and I like the faux-vitamins in jelly.
      Do you actually get Skippy? We get american style, but it isn’t a brand I have every heard of. Its still good though. How much do you pay for a jar of how big?

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