The average American will eat 2984 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches over the course of their lifetime, according to a 2016 survey. If you piled all of those PB&Js on top of each other, the 373-foot stack of sandwiches would be taller than the Statue of Liberty. Two American icons going toe-to-crust, the executives at Peter Pan peanut butter who commissioned the survey must have pleased with the results.
Among the simplest of modern American staples, the rise of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich illustrates many of the major themes of recent American history. The growing popularity of the PB&J in the twentieth century reflected changing family structures and child-rearing practices as well as the evolution of food production and consumption. By the 1950s and 60s the PB&J symbolized both how much parents (particularly mothers) cared about their children. The PB&J was also a shining example of the U.S. food industry’s efficient mass-production for a booming population. The sandwich’s three basic ingredients linked regional economies in the South, Midwest, and West, just as coast-to-coast consumption contributed greatly to a national cultural identity inculcated at a young age. Children’s books, television shows, songs, games, and advertising campaigns extolled the virtues of the simple sandwich.
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich was significant because it bridged three divides in American society, and in so doing, became an iconic American dish. First, PB&Js connected American private and public lives. The sandwich represented food prepared at home, but it was just as often eaten outside of the home on picnics and camping trips or in school cafeterias and the workplace. Second, it connected parents and children across generation gaps. This was particularly true in the PB&J heyday from the 1950s through the 1970s, when the Baby Boom made the generation gap a chasm, increasing numbers of women entered the workforce, and rising divorce rates split nuclear families. Third, the PB&J was one way that Americans attempted to bridge the class divide. A relatively inexpensive and nutritious dish, the PB&J was unsurprisingly a staple of the working class and middle class. Even the children of elites relished PB&Js. Particularly during times of economic hardship, the PB&J was a staple for families of all walks of life across the country. After decades of withstanding numerous shifts in eating habits, food fads, and agricultural production, the PB&J today may be in decline.
At the end of the twentieth century, new cultural trends undermined the iconic status of the PB&J. Sanitation scandals in large-scale, industrial agriculture tainted the ingredients and reputation of “factory food” just as environmentalists and health advocates urged consumers to buy locally-grown, organic, low-fat foodstuffs. Growing incidence and awareness of childhood allergies limited peanut consumption in daycares and schools. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the PB&J had gone from being a symbol of doting mothers and idyllic children to a reflection of negligent parenting and unhealthy kids.
The potential health consequences of eating too many processed foods (like the three main ingredients of the classic PB&J) could be serious, and in the case of childhood food allergies, life threatening. Yet as the food historian Charlotte Biltekoff has argued, dietary reform movements and health food trends are often as much about changes in socio-economic classes as they are about “eating right” in America. Let’s consider how this might be true of the rise and possible decline of the PB&J. The PB&J sandwich reached iconic status as the American middle class and public schooling expanded in the post-World War II era. Perhaps, this was a coincidence. It may also be simply a coincidence that the PB&J seems to be in decline at the very same time that the middle class is shrinking and the divide between rich and poor is growing in America. Or perhaps, the decline of the PB&J is a symptom of these changes, just as it was once a unifying, national symbol of happy children from all walks of life from the 1940s through the 1990s. Starting in the late-1990s some public schools and many elite private schools began to ban peanut butter. As a result, school children’s consumption of PB&J declined, particularly among schools serving middle class and upper class kids. Today, this cheap and efficient dish that once glued American society together despite differences of race, age, and particularly, class, may no longer be enough to help us stick together.