PB&J, Deconstructed


In the early 20th century, people across the world cut their own bread, one slice at a time. But in 1902, a Missouri inventor named Otto Frederick Rohwedder couldn't get his bread slices to fit inside the slots of his toaster. Thus began his 26-year quest to invent a bread-slicing machine. Although Rohwedder had a prototype as early as 1912, he soon realized that cutting the bread wasn't enough; he also needed to package the slices in such a way that they wouldn't go stale. By 1928, Rohwedder had modified his machine to wrap the bread in addition to cutting it, and his first loaf of sliced bread was sold that July in Chillicothe, Mo.

But just because it sold, that doesn't mean that it sold well. For years, sliced bread was a commercial flop. Consumers thought the loaves looked sloppy, and bakeries hesitated to invest in the machines. That all changed in the 1930s, when Wonder Bread hit the shelves. Lured by its colorful red, yellow, and blue packaging, Americans picked up the sandwich slices and put down their bread knives for good.


Health guru Dr. John Harvey Kellogg spent the late 1800s extolling the virtues of vegetarianism at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, a spa that welcomed the likes of Thomas Edison, William Howard Taft, and Amelia Earhart. There, Dr. Kellogg also perfected new forms of vegetarian cuisine, including breakfast cereal and peanut butter. He even toured the country, lecturing about the spread's health benefits. In fact, one of these talks possibly changed the course of legume history. When Dr. Kellogg spoke at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, George Washington Carver was in attendance; that may have been what piqued his interest in the peanut.


During its early years, peanut butter was a delicacy, only to be served in upscale tearooms. Chefs combine it with beef, pimientos, Worcestershire sauce, and other ingredients, with limited success. But around 1900, peanut butter met jelly, and the sweet-salty combination was a hit with kids. As the commercial peanut butter industry took off, the cost of the spread dropped dramatically. By the time the Great Depression hit, hungry Americans were relying on the PB&J as a cheap, nutritious meal, and later, during World War II, soldiers were scarfing them down on the battlefield. The sandwich has been a national touchstone ever since. Nowadays, the average American child eats about 1,500 PB&J sandwiches before finishing high school.


In 2000, the J.M. Smucker company came to the aid of parents everywhere by patenting and marketing the first crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The frozen, disc-shaped Uncrustables quickly became a top-selling product. All was well until 2001, when a small Michigan grocery store started selling its own crustless PB&Js, and Smucker's sued them for patent infringement. But after a thorough investigation, the US Patent & Trademark Office ruled that the Smucker's version was nothing special. After all, cutting the crust off children's sandwiches is practically an American tradition.


In January 1943, US government officials put the kibosh on sliced bread, arguing that it was detrimental to the war effort. They claimed the bread went stale too fast, wasting precious wheat, and that the metal in the slicing machines would be better used for guns, tanks, and ships. When the ban was lifted a few months later, the country rejoiced. A headline in The New York Times read, "Housewives' Thumbs Safe Again!"


Want to know who makes the priciest peanut butter on the market? The federal government, of course! For about $220 per 6-ounce jar, The National Institute of Standards and Technology sells what it calls "Standard Reference Material No. 2387," a pristine peanut butter spread. The price tag comes with a precise analysis of the peanut butter's nutritional composition, including levels of vitamins, minerals, fats, amino acids, and aflatoxins, the carcinogens produced by mold in peanut crops. Food manufacturers use the spread for quality control, comparing it to their own products. Sadly, this means that no one actually eats the gold-standard peanut butter; it's fed exclusively to laboratory equipment.

(Image credit: Flickr user jpellgen)

It would take 500 million pounds of peanut butter to cover the floor of the Grand Canyon, which happens to be how much Americans consume each year.


The above article was written by Megan Wilde. It is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the July-August 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

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Outside of North America, mentioning Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich makes people ill.

The reason: in British English the word "Jelly" means gelatin, or what we call "Jello" in the US. So it is the equivalent of saying "Peanut spread with jello". Sounds disgusting.

So if you are talking to a Brit, Aussie, or Kiwi, say "Peanut Butter with Jam". They will understand you and not throw up on your shoes.
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