Last Friday, I had lunch with a colleague who teaches in the History department; let’s call her Stacy. We are co-teaching a large (approximately 200 student) lecture together this quarter, and we had met to discuss what we would be saying in the first lecture, which was on Monday, i.e. three days later. We needed to hammer out The Relationship Between Philosophy and Literature. That’s what we had met to discuss.
Naturally, more pressing issues arose.
STACY: [Tossing her luxurious mane coltishly] And do you just have it plain or do you spread butter on it?
DUCK-RABBIT: Well, actually [considering carefully before confessing this, since Stacy is English, and hence likely to hold extreme views on the subject of Acceptable Substances to Spread on Toast] … actually, I often have my toast with peanut butter.
(The Duck-rabbit’s nerves are eased when Stacy gives a slight but nonetheless perceptible nod of approval at this admission)
STACY: And where do you buy your peanut butter?
DUCK-RABBIT: (feeling sure that this is a trick question) Well, actually, I hardly ever buy groceries, but the peanut butter we have is usually from … from …
(the duck-rabbit stalls here as it strives to read the expression on Stacy’s face, and speculates as to whether she deems the right answer to be “Ralph’s” or “organic peanuts that we roast and grind ourselves.” The duck-rabbit has already been decisively out-snobbed earlier in this conversation, when the subject had been the extortionate price of tuna at Whole Foods. “It costs bloody $11 for one jar!” railed Stacy. “What, for canned tuna?” asked the duck-rabbit incredulously. “No, no, for that bottled tuna in olive oil in a jar. You know, the preserved tuna.” Stacy paused. “Not canned tuna. I can’t eat that shit. Fucking cat food.” “Uh, I like canned tuna,” admitted the duck-rabbit, awkwardly.)
… from … Trader Joes …? [Uttered hesitantly, as if the duck-rabbit is a contestant on a high-stakes game show]
STACY: Trader Joe’s. [She utters the store’s name at exactly the same time as the duck-rabbit does, her tone affirming its choice]
DUCK-RABBIT: [the duck-rabbit should really stop there but can’t help itself] … but also, sometimes, Whole Foods?
(Stacy narrows her eyes. Game on.)
And, in your estimation, how do they compare, The Whole Foods versus the Trader Joe’s?
DUCK-RABBIT: (Nervously babbling) Well … that’s difficult to say … I mean, they’re both good (pauses to give Stacy time to weigh in but she is silent) … but they’re different, you know …? [trailing off]
STACY: [shifting forward in her seat] Yes, they are different aren’t they? (Musing contemplatively) I must say that I’ve come to feel that the Trader Joe’s peanut butter is really rather masterful.
DUCK-RABBIT: (with relief) it is good, isn’t it? (Newly emboldened). And you know what I like? I like to sprinkle some Maldon salt on top of it.
(Stacy nods again briefly in acknowledgement of this choice’s validity)
STACY: I go in the other direction … I’ll have it with some nice Bonne Maman jam ..
(At this, the Duck-Rabbit’s eyebrows raise; a Brit who likes peanut butter and jelly! Meanwhile, Stacy is clearly still ruminating on the Duck-rabbit’s preference)
… but you don’t find … you don’t find the crunch of the Maldon odd against the smoothness of the peanut butter?
DUCK-RABBIT: (sharply) Odd? Not at all! That’s precisely the pleasure.
The duck-rabbit is about to add that it would indeed be a trifecta—the Trader Joe’s peanut butter, the Bonne Maman jam, and the Maldon salt—but at that point another colleague joins us and this insight is lost.
Peanut butter was not a regular part of the duck-rabbit’s childhood diet. I do recall, though, and I don’t know if this was just a mid-80s phase in London, that there was a period in which our family would go out quite often for Malaysian food. And the main thing I remember eating was chicken satay with peanut sauce and a cucumber garnish. I think this explains that when I made peanut butter sandwiches for myself as a child, it was almost always peanut butter and cucumber, often with a bit of lime or lemon juice.
If this seems exotic, you need to remember that to me the idea that you might eat peanut butter with jam was the exotic idea. No, let me revise that. It was not exotic; it sounded revolting. I thought of peanut butter as being an essentially savory ingredient. To me, the idea of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was as outlandish sounding as, I don’t know, a tuna fish and Nutella sandwich.
And if peanut butter and jelly was disgusting, what did I think of peanut butter and chocolate? The thought was positively nauseating, which is very funny to me now, because the duck-rabbit positively adores peanut butter with chocolate.
I still recall, vividly and ashamedly, a peanut-butter-chocolate incident involving an American girl (I vaguely and possibly erroneously remember her name being Ellie) who attended my primary school for several months, I think while her father was doing research for his PhD in London. I don’t remember what year this was, but I’m guessing I was eight or nine. On her last day, she brought in, as a special treat for the class, a whole bag of peanut butter cups. My class’s response was, I recall, uniformly, one of disgust. We dared each other to try one. In my memory, the combination seemed so utterly heinous that no-one was willing to try one. I remember Ellie being utterly mystified and, obviously, hurt, that her gift to the class was so reviled. “But it’s just chocolate and peanut butter,” she said, by way of explanation. “It’s delicious,” she added, popping one in her mouth, at which many of us started dramatically retching just to underscore how grotesque we found the prospect of peanut butter and chocolate in combination.
I’ve since come around to the American taste for peanut butter with something sweet. Of course, the duck-rabbit won’t stand for peanut butter and any old jelly, not even Bonne Maman. No, the duck-rabbit prefers peanut butter on toast (preferably made from He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved’s challah) with homemade quince jam (I made it for the first time last fall; if you’re lucky, I might send you some this year), and just the merest pinch of Maldon salt. It’s fruity-floral-nutty-salty-crunchy all at once. And it tastes of home.
 Since we ate a lot of Bengali food, there were usually limes in the house.
 Seriously. The California quince season is nearly upon us. Leave a comment or email me if you want some.