Let’s say you are 10 years old on a cold winter’s day. For hours, you’ve been sledding with your brother and your friends in the neighborhood. Your stocking cap is soaked with sweat and a while ago one of your friends put snow down your back that has long since turned to an ever-present, icy wetness. Then you hear the dinner bell your Mom rang to call the kids in your family to dinner. You grab the rope to your Flexible Flyer and start the long trudge home, pulling the sled behind you. And as you walk, you start to think about what your Mom might be serving for dinner and begin hoping that it will be your favorite winter meal.
In my case, the favorite winter meal was tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. The tomato soup was Campbell’s, of course, and made with “whole milk.” (I’m not even sure they had skim milk or 2% milk or the other milk options in those days.) The soup was served piping hot with lots of crumbled saltine crackers to make it even more fortifying. The sandwiches were made with Kraft American cheese on Wonder bread that was lightly buttered on the outside then grilled so that the bread was browned and crunchy and the cheese was perfectly melted and oozed when you took your first bite. The sandwiches were served hot and were cut diagonally, the better to facilitate dipping the sandwich into the steaming soup. Mom would call it a “nourishing meal.” I just thought it tasted great. This was a meal that never disappointed!
Last night we had tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and the meal is still as good as I remember it. There were some differences, of course. We don’t buy “whole milk” anymore, so the soup was made with 2% milk, and I haven’t eaten Wonder Bread in decades, so the sandwiches were made with whole wheat bread. But the soup was still Campbell’s, and it tasted as rich and warming and creamy as ever. The toasted and grilled sandwiches still had the satisfying crunch and the melty goodness, and sinking part of the sandwich into the soup and taking a bite still yielded one of the the greatest taste combinations ever.
In my book, this is the definitive winter comfort food meal.
Tonight when I drove home I was thinking of the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m not sure why, but as I was crossing Long Street on my way to the parking garage the thought of the perfect PB & J insinuated itself into my head and there it has stayed, firmly lodged at the forefront of my consciousness.
The perfect PB & J
What is the perfect PB and J? My definition has changed over time. When I was 12 I would have argued vigorously that the perfect PB & J was made with Wonder Bread, plain peanut butter, and grape jelly. When Mom packed my lunch for school that combination was my sandwich of choice. The concoction was prepared, cut horizontally, and put into a Glad bag, and by the time I ate it during lunch period the grape jelly had thoroughly seeped into the Wonder Bread, infusing every pore and leaving it a purple, wet, spongy slice of grape-y goodness that squished out jelly when when you bit down on it. Wash it down with a pint of whole milk that cost 2 cents and top it off with a Twinkie and you had the perfect school meal.
Now I have a different view, although I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a chance to eat another of Mom’s grape specials once more. These days my preferred PB & J is made with a heavy grain wheat bread, toasted so as to better ensure even spreading of crunchy peanut butter and strawberry preserves. This sandwich is a sweet and tasty masterpiece of different textures, combining the crunchy toasted bread, chopped peanuts, gummy peanut butter, and occasional globs of jam with those tiny strawberry seeds. The coarse wheat bread is needed to stand up to the crunchy peanut butter, which would tear ordinary white bread to shreds during the spreading process. And, for the middle-aged guy, wheat bread and strawberry preserves at least seem healthier than bleached white bread and sugary, processed grape jelly.