Illustration by Sarah Becan
Illustration: Sarah Becan

In 1993, I was studying abroad in Dublin and living in a flat with two Irish students. Though we shared a kitchen, our culinary exchange was minimal. They seemed to eat nothing but Weetabix, which meant they basically poured milk on the stuff you dump from a paper shredder and called it a meal. I’m sure my diet — a steady intake of pasta, beer, and potato chips — amused them as well.

One morning, I learned that neither of my flatmates had ever had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “I’m gonna make you the best sandwich in America,” I said. When they asked what made it so good, I had no answer. To many Americans, a good PB&J is like a warm hug; it’s the flavor of childhood. But how would it fare before two impartial judges without the years of memories baked in?

I didn’t have the usual tools in my arsenal (Skippy crunchy peanut butter, Welch’s grape jam, and Roman Meal wheat bread), so I toasted the thin bread at hand and spread it with some oily peanut butter and thick raspberry preserves. The three of us sat in our breakfast nook, chewing and smacking our lips as the rain pounded against the kitchen window.

“So?” I asked.

“It’s good,” one of my flatmates said, his peanut-butter-coated tongue peeling away noisily from his palate.

The other flatmate was more loquacious. “There’s a lot going on,” he said. “It’s sweet, but salty. The fruit sort of sinks into something fatty. It adds up to something that feels right on your tongue. It’s rather brilliant. Fair play to you, mate.”

“Sticky, too,” added the first flatmate, sucking preserves off a finger.

For all their enthusiasm, the next morning they were back to Weetabix. And yet, to this day, I have never heard a better description of the transcendent pleasure of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: Whether it’s spread with a layer of nostalgia or not, it just feels right on your tongue.

For a spin on the classic, try the Not Your Mama’s PBJ (almond butter, berry compote, and maple-bourbon honey on toasted multigrain) at PB&J. It’s decidedly more comforting than the $350 gold leaf version. 205 N. Peoria St., West Loop