Every sandwich tells a story… don’t it?

Everyone has a favorite sandwich, often prepared to an exacting degree of specification: Turkey or ham? Grilled or toasted? Mayo or mustard? White or whole wheat?

We reached out to five food historians and asked them to tell the story of a sandwich of their choosing. The responses included staples like peanut butter and jelly, as well as regional fare like New England’s chow mein sandwich.

Together, they show how the sandwiches we eat (or used to eat) do more than fill us up during our lunch breaks. In their stories are themes of immigration and globalization, of class and gender, and of resourcefulness and creativity.

It’s a five-part series entitled “Every sandwich tells a story, don’t it?”

Part Four: ‘The combination is delicious and original’

By Ken Albala, of the University of the Pacific, and first published on theconversation.com

While the peanut butter and jelly sandwich eventually became a staple of elementary school cafeterias, it actually has upper-crust origins.

In the late-19th century, at elegant ladies’ luncheons, a popular snack was small, crustless tea sandwiches with butter and cucumber, cold cuts or cheese. Around this time, health food advocates like John Harvey Kellogg started promoting peanut products as a replacement for animal-based foods (butter included). So for a vegetarian option at these luncheons, peanut butter simply replaced regular butter.

One of the earliest known recipes that suggested including jelly with peanut butter appeared in a 1901 issue of the Boston Cooking School Magazine.

“For variety,” author Julia Davis Chandler wrote, “someday try making little sandwiches, or bread fingers, of three very thin layers of bread and two of filling, one of peanut paste, whatever brand you prefer, and currant or crabapple jelly for the other. The combination is delicious, and so far as I know original.”

The sandwich moved from garden parties to lunchboxes in the 1920s, when peanut butter started to be mass produced with hydrogenated vegetable oil and sugar. Marketers of the Skippy brand targeted children as a potential new audience, and thus the association with school lunches was forged.

A Skippy peanut butter television ad from 1986.

The classic version of the sandwich is made with soft, sliced white bread, creamy or chunky peanut butter, and jelly. Outside of the United States, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is rare – much of the world views the combination as repulsive.

These days, many try to avoid white bread and hydrogenated fats. Nonetheless, the sandwich has a nostalgic appeal for many Americans, and recipes for high-end versions – with freshly ground peanuts, artisanal bread or unusual jams – now circulate on the web.

Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and Director of the Food Studies MA program in San Francisco. He has authored or edited 23 books on food including Eating Right in the Renaissance, Food in Early Modern Europe, Cooking in Europe 1250-1650, The Banquet, Beans (winner 2008 IACP Jane Grigson Award), Pancake, Grow Food, Cook Food, Share Food and Nuts: A Global History.



  1. I bought one jar of all natural, no other ingredients added peanut butter at a very well known and respected grocery store, that uses the color green in their advertising, and I got it home, opened it, and went to make a sandwich, and I could have stood there, and poured it out, it was so runny. What’s with that? I was ticked.

  2. Later I said I wasn’t going to buy that brand anymore. I went to a different well known and respected southern grocery store, and bought a different brand of peanut butter, got home, and made a sandwich, and liked to choked to death it was so dry, and it was the total opposite of the other brand that was too runny. What’s with that?

  3. I always ate a homemade bisquit with peanut butter and a mug of hot cocoa for breakfast whenever I stayed with my grandma in the summers. I never liked eggs. Still don’t care for them, but will once in awhile eat a deviled egg or two. For me to sit down to a fried egg with the yellow running out would puke me out.


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