Peanut butter is my earliest food memory: My mother slices the Red Delicious apple horizontally, cores out the sides, and packs the crater with Jif. Raisins, M&Ms, or chocolate chips I press into the surface, forming beady eyes and a jagged mouth. I think of this as a witch.
Jif Creamy is what my mother buys, Skippy in a pinch. My grandmother buys Peter Pan, which comes in a stiffer jar with a twinkly-eyed, green-capped boy who whispers, “You’ll never grow up.”
By the time I am seven, my preferences have solidified into Tastes, as I think of them; these make me adult. I like Reese’s Pieces because the peanut butter is pure and unadulterated: no chocolate. Peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff on Roman Meal is a Fluffernutter, superior to the oozy dumbness of PB & Js. Peanut butter on celery is a log.
My mother doesn’t like peanut butter. My father doesn’t like peanut butter. My brother doesn’t like peanut butter. The peanut butter blossoms—brown sugary cookies capped with Hershey’s Kisses—that my mother bakes are consumed by me and my grandma.
In his book, Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, author Jon Krampner pins peanut butter’s origins to the early-twentieth-century Midwest. Krampner quotes John Garwood, a boy in Nebraska at this time, who frequented a general store where “‘with a heavy spoon, [the shop owner] would ladle a couple of pounds [of peanut butter] from the large wooden tub. It wasn’t labeled chunky, super-chunky, regular, smooth, free of salt or sugar. There was just the sight and smell of the raw sin of all that peanut butter.’”
Who Krampner doesn’t quote is the anonymous caller I heard phone into “Private Lives,” an adult after-hours talk radio show I listen to in bed. I’m nine. Ten.
“Maggots,” the caller says, in a braggart’s tone. “I didn’t eat the peanut butter out good enough I guess.”
In fifth grade, I begin middle school. Here, Mrs. Cummens, our giantess Health teacher, hocks Little Debbie snacks out of a cabinet in her classroom. With my report-card money, I start buying Nutty Bars. I have a ritual, the same one I developed with Girl Scout Tagalongs and Nutter Butters and Ritz Bits: gingerly, I roll up the thin layer of peanut butter, as though I’m coiling a rug. I am left with a skinny peanut butter cigar. I disassemble the two Nutty Bars in this manner, collecting the peanut butter into one ball, which I chew. It dissolves, dry and crumbly in my mouth.
By the time I begin high school, my singular pursuit of peanut butter frightens me. Maybe peanut butter is my raw sin. That I want to taste all alone, peanut butter, peanut butter, nothing but peanut butter when I’m quartering an apple or smearing it on celery—this need for the stuff is the sole blemish on my diet, which is one of ascetic valor.
Simultaneously, I love the simplicity of peanut butter. When I stop eating chicken for a year, I love the protein. When I stop eating fat, I love the fat, unavoidable and unsaturated and good for me.
Still, at fifteen, I want nothing to do with anything that is good for me, and peanut butter is my niggling vice. This is when I propose the Twelve Steps.
I vow not to spread peanut butter on a caramel corn rice cake (usual breakfast). I vow not to stir peanut butter into my post-swim-practice ice cream (usual guilt). On aa.org, I read the_ Big Book_. I read the Twelve Steps. I get ready to fling apologizes at anyone I’ve ever offended (everyone, in my estimation) with my consumption.
Foolishly, I announce my plan to my best friend, S—a non-peanut-butter eater.
“Why don’t you just not eat it so much?” she says, with the level-headed calm of the moderate. “Why do you have to be so extreme?”
“It’s ruining my life,” I say, exasperated.
I last forty-eight hours, and realize the breadth of my addiction.
In college, I become a vegetarian; I eat peanut butter and frozen yogurt. In college, I try to become a vegan; I eat apples and peanut butter—all right.
In college, I move off campus and buy my own groceries: at Target, flavored peanut butter from Peanut Butter & Co—White Chocolate Wonderful—that I eat straight from the jar.
In college, I take a leave of absence. In-patient, I have a dietician. All the girls in treatment are on the same breakfast plan. Bowl of Goodness, they call it. Two packs of Smucker’s peanut butter stirred into one six-ounce carton of plain Dannon yogurt, and one one-ounce box of Raisin Bran. This is the nutrition we need.
Recovery is a word I can’t swallow. It sits gluey in my mouth, even though I stop purging. Even though I keep making my Bowl of Goodness. One day after another, with heaping, heaping tablespoons.
During the middle part of my twenties, I work as a pastry assistant and a pastry chef. I stop licking spatulas and snacking on cookie dough. I stop eating the product. To think that rigidity and rules belong to one binary or another (good or bad, right or wrong, saving or damning) is foolish.
32 grams of peanut butter is two tablespoons, 180-210 calories, an ounce with oomph. Measuring has always felt good, reassuring and logical, something my father might do, were he a cook.
Still, a food scale teaches me portion control, the way Fun Size bags of potato chips teach others.
“The nurses tell me it’s good for me,” my grandmother reports on the phone. “They say, peanut butter. See, so. Peanut butter keeps you young.”
“That’s good,” I reply. “I like peanut butter.” It comes out sounding so normal, so moderate, so not compulsive or excessive or creepy. Good.
“I don’t eat much, now that grandpa’s gone,” my grandmother continues. She is ninety-five. Who’s to tell her what to do? Maybe a retirement of mild restriction awaits me too.
“I’ll tell you what I do,” says my grandmother. I picture the cuckoo inside the clock watching her from his perch in the kitchen. “I get my peanut butter. I get a package of crackers and I sit there. I sit there with my jar.”