This post is part of Nosh, a special pop-up blog about snacks. Read more here.
Dwight Garner, an accomplished New York Times book critic, can count himself a member of the rarefied club of journalists whose writing has actually moved hearts and minds on a topic of great importance. In one 2012 article, he changed my life, intimately and permanently, with an ode to an object I’d never previously considered with the solemnity it deserves: the peanut butter and pickle sandwich.
When I clicked on Garner’s piece “Peanut Butter Takes On an Unlikely Best Friend” in October 2012, it was with great skepticism. I expected to be trolled with outrageous, unsupported assertions and straw-man arguments. Instead, I found myself drawn in by lip-smacking prose and a miniature history lesson. Peanut butter and pickle sandwiches were a hit at Depression-era lunch counters, I learned, and in cookbooks from the 1930s and ’40s, which recommended they be crafted with pickle relish rather than slices or spears. Garner quoted the founder of a peanut butter company, who remarked that the savory-and-sour flavor profile of the sandwich is more common in South and East Asian cuisines. This observation was my eureka moment: One of my favorite Thai dishes, papaya salad, traditionally combines raw peanuts with a lime and rice vinegar–based dressing. Perhaps the sandwich I’d only ever imagined in the context of stupid jokes about pregnancy cravings could be equally delicious.
Reader, it was. My first peanut butter and pickle sandwich was revelatory—an effortless, satisfying marriage of creamy and crisp, sweet and salty, nutty and garlicky, fatty and acerbic. It was filling, relatively healthy-tasting, and constructed with shelf-stable ingredients I almost always have in my pantry. I immediately knew I’d found my new go-to snack. In the half decade since Garner blessed me with his feat of journalism, I’ve eaten the sandwiches as late-night drunk food, as a packable treat on hikes, and as a mid-afternoon lunch substitute on weekends, when I eat a late brunch and don’t want to spoil my appetite for dinner. When I interned at NPR on a meager stipend, I’d occasionally bring one to work for a cheap breakfast and hope no one balked when my work area smelled like kosher dill first thing in the morning. These days, I eat between two and four a month.
I consider myself the perfect candidate for a peanut-butter-and-pickle-sandwich habit. I’m a vegetarian, so cold-cut sandwiches aren’t an option. I don’t have a sweet tooth; jelly, honey, and even bananas can sway a peanut butter sandwich too far into the realm of dessert for me. As a kid, I was one of the many in the school cafeteria to add potato chips to sandwiches for an extra hit of crunch and salt. Pickles, I now realize, serve a similar function.
Garner and I differ on a few important variables—he sometimes makes his sandwiches on white or sourdough bread, usually the good, structurally sound stuff from a purveyor like Bread Alone; I like any seeded whole-wheat sandwich loaf from the grocery store. I buy a slightly sweetened Jif natural peanut butter; he uses a sugar-free brand. Garner also recommends bread-and-butter pickles in his seminal 2012 article, an abomination I cannot discourage strongly enough. (My relationship with my fiancée has barely recovered since she accidentally bought bread-and-butter slices a few years ago, and we didn’t notice until we took our first nauseating bites.) I confronted Garner about his poor pickle choice in a phone interview for this piece. “You have to understand—when I wrote that, my peanut butter and pickle fandom was still in its infancy,” he said. “I’ve come a long way since then. I no longer think that bread-and-butter are the best. I now use sour dills.”
We agree on one other essential point. When I emailed Garner to request an interview (subject line: “You changed my life”), he responded with delight that I’d “made it past the awful photo” on his 2012 piece, an image of spongy Wonder bread with a gloppy spread. “A good PB&P,” he continued, “is invariably on toast.” Obviously, I thought. Invariably.
Earlier this month, the New York Times recirculated Garner’s article on social media, promptly “tearing the internet apart” and moving food journalists to try the combo for the first time. Garner said the 2018 re-up had tripled the public impact of the original 2012 publication. “Suddenly, every shock jock and local TV-news host was eating it on the air to see if they could stand it, almost like a hot-pepper challenge,” he said. Garner did get a fair amount of private responses when the article first dropped, though. “A lot of people sent me emails saying they had no idea anyone else [liked the sandwich]—it’s almost like I revealed their secret shame, something they’re in therapy about liking,” he said. He remembers getting an email from New Yorker editor David Remnick, who wrote something along the lines of, “Dwight, this is the most goyish thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
I envy those who are only now arriving at Garner’s chef-d’œuvre upon its 2018 recirculation. They have so much to look forward to, a whole world of savory snacking about to reveal itself. I admit that peanut butter and pickle sandwiches are a particular taste—when I asked if he’d been able to convert any of his friends, Garner said, “Fuck no”—but for those with mature, seasoned taste buds, it’s worth a shot. I believe the knee-jerk incredulity that’s met this sandwich has been driven as much by social stigma against an unfamiliar pairing of ingredients as by taste. “I remember trying one in 2012 and thinking it didn’t really work,” one of my colleagues told me. “It just tastes like two different foods at the same time.” Two different foods at the same time—is that not the animating concept behind all but the simplest recipes? Is eating two unexpected, different-tasting foods at the same time not the genesis of some of modern cuisine’s most memorable dishes?
Over the past five years, my beloved snack has moved me to incrementally rebroaden my peanut butter horizons. I’ve done sandwiches with peanut butter and bacon, peanut butter and blueberries, and once, peanut butter, bacon, and blueberries (do not recommend). I’ve dipped carrots in peanut butter, an inspired combination I picked up from a friend that is, now that I think about it, a kind of deconstructed take on the toppings found in peanut-sesame noodles. Now that I’ve let go of my preconceived notions of what a peanut butter sandwich should be, I’m reimagining the entire snack genre as a venue for reckless, no-frills experimentation.
But creativity flourishes best within established boundaries, boundaries that were irresponsibly flouted by the second recipe Garner endorsed in his 2012 article. A peanut butter and pickle sandwich is both a callback to an American tradition and a future-facing reinvention of a classic meal. Peanut butter and pickle ice cream? That’s just pantry Mad Libs.