When my father started to study with Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1971 little did I know how radically our lives would change. Over the course of a year we became completely involved with the Waterville, Maine congregation. We sold our house and moved into town to be closer to the Kingdom Hall, we started attending all of the meetings and participating in field service. Convinced that the end of the system would arrive in 1975, my father quit his job, started pioneering, and took on cleaning jobs.
In order to accommodate this odd new lifestyle we began what Dad called an “austerity program.” We had to make do or do without.
In an effort to economize, my parents joined a local food co-op in 1972. They bought 50-pound bags of whole-wheat flour, large bags of whole-wheat pasta, and 40 pounds of natural peanut butter. The idea was that we could avoid paying the extortive prices charged by the baking industry (I believe it was less than a dollar a loaf for bread) by having my mother make sandwich rolls. Unfortunately, she had a recipe that only the bitterest of ascetics could love. The resulting rolls were dense and very dry, and would probably have worked quite well cleaning up after the Exxon Valdez.
The peanut butter came in a large bucket, much the way that dry-wall mud is packaged today. As anyone who has bought a jar of natural peanut butter knows, the oil separates from the peanut mass and rises to the top. It’s always a messy business to stir the jar, but it’s manageable. However, this enormous bucket of peanut mass topped with about 3 inches of oil was another matter entirely. What they needed was an industrial auger or some sort of mixer powered by hydraulics. Instead, they attacked it with wooden spoons which proved to be no match for the solidity of the peanut mass.
Many broken wooden tools and many hours of sweating, grunting effort later, they had managed to mix the oil with the top couple of inches of peanut mass. They scooped the peanut butter into smaller containers which would be frozen for later use. The top layer was so full of oil that it formed a sort of peanut soup. The bottom layer was nothing but dry peanut brick.
Mom would slice open a roll and spread jam or jelly on one side which was quickly absorbed by the thirsty bread until only a faint red stain remained to indicate where the jam had been. The other side of the roll was spread with peanut butter. Depending on which box of peanut butter Mom was currently using, by lunchtime the peanut butter had either leaked completely out of the sandwich onto the plastic wrap, in which case you had a mess on your hands and very little peanut butter to eat, or you were in for a struggle.
If Mom had selected a box of peanut brick, your lunch would be considerably less cheerful. The peanut brick defied all attempts at spreading. You could only cut it into little chunks and try to press them flat so as to resemble a spreadable substance. The resulting sandwich was so painfully lacking in moisture that it took two cartons of milk to get it down.
It was no use to complain. Mom had grown up during the Depression, and Dad’s family had been poor. By their standards, my brother and I were living the high life.
Meanwhile, my lunchtime companions brought normal sandwiches with them or else ate the hot lunch at school. One girl, whose father was a neurosurgeon, pulled out a sandwich made on bread marbled in pink, green and yellow – apparently for Easter.
It took years for us to eat our way through 40 pounds of peanut butter (Dad and Mom ate it too). These sandwiches featured in my lunch every day throughout my high school career. One day, in an apparent fit of whimsy, my mother packed me a tuna sandwich instead of peanut butter. I didn’t even look at it as I unwrapped it, my palate inured to the endless tedium. I took a bite and couldn’t imagine what I had in my mouth. I had to examine the sandwich in order to ascertain that it was actually tuna! It happened only once, and I didn’t expect it to happen again.
At one point during the peanut butter years, Dad found and purchased a sign for our kitchen: “Try Our Famous Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.” We were not without a sense of humor about it.
Surprisingly, the Peanut Butter Interlude did not put me completely off peanut butter. It’s okay but not my first choice when picking a lunch menu. In fact, after all this talk of peanut butter I think I’ll get myself an Italian cold cut sub.