The Comfort Food Diaries: The Mindless Pleasures of the PB&J

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[Illustration: Zac Overman]

This story is not about a guilty pleasure. It's not about exalting a humble eating experience into a sentimental touchstone of shared experience. Nor is it about covering a faintly ridiculous dish in the laurels of intellectual reverence to make it high by its lowness. I'm not going to dissect the peanut butter or the jelly, how either of them came to be, their culinary antecedents or their historical significance. I'm not going to wonder how the two combine in an alchemical rebis of harmonious duality. I do not eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to return to youth, to conjure the past, to re-associate with early life and a simpler era.

I eat them because I feel like it.

I don't think about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I'm deciding to make them and eat them. In fact, I don't really eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat them. I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to erase my mind. But what great pleasure there is in that span of unmindfulness!

The freedom to not have to think is an obscene luxury. The mechanical act of holding, chewing, swallowing food that is exactly sufficient to its purpose of being just good enough to invoke desire to eat it, but not good enough to draw attention to its being eaten.

When I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I eat at least two, and possibly three if I have the ideal components at hand. Those components are crunchy peanut butter, moderately chunky fruit preserves of any kind, and white bread. The whiter the bread, the better. The square, industrial doughiness of extremely white bread can push me from a standard two-sandwich affair to the high-stakes ambition of three sandwiches. Grained or nicer bread can work, but it never tempts me to the three-sandwich level. There also must be milk, though it need not be more than a half glass, as a finisher.

A reflective period is necessary afterward, when the passive engagement of attention may continue uninterrupted, perhaps even shading into an attempted nap (consummated or otherwise). If possible, physical activity should be avoided during this period, as should anything requiring professional acuity or focus.

Your preferences for, and interests in, the preparation and eating of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are likely different in degree, somewhat or absolute. I don't care.

I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I have time to remain undisturbed, when I can focus on something passive, like a book or a screen. I should not have eaten anything sweet recently, nor should I expect to eat anything sweet much later. Eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is antisocial—not just isolated from social interaction, but an anti-society, a physical incarnation of consumption of time, alone.

This is not gluttony. I don't relish eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I don't think about them except when all these various situational criteria are met and the successful eating of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches seems probable. I don't order fabulous, upgraded, cheffy takes on the sandwich in restaurants—not because I sneer at the attempt, but because, for me, that's not what this is about. I'm not even sure I enjoy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a detectable or communicable way.

A friend of mine used to say that there is good and bad food, and there is food you would label simply "edible," like a dry cracker or a ration biscuit—something that can merely sustain life, not great and yet also not "bad" per se. But there is also a further stratum of food: not good, not bad, yet better than merely edible. He called this kind of food "eatable."

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are my favorite eatable food. They give me comfort, though it's not the grand, wallowing comfort associated with the fleshy or fried, starchy or sugary. The comfort of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is the comfort of the sensuously insensate, somewhere between relaxation and unconsciousness. Which means that the next time I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I won't be thinking about any of this.