Long Reads

An Apology to the 1000 PB&Js I Threw in the Trash

June  7, 2016

By age eleven, I threw 1000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into the trash.

The number pulses through my thoughts as I watch my two-year-old niece wind her chubby fist towards a spoon (or unconvincingly, an airplane) that's heaped with buttered-up peas and headed in her direction. She readies a fresh batch of tears, just in case.

Photo by James Ransom

This estranged relationship with food is foreign to me at age twenty-six. Now, a spoonful of buttery peas sounds delightful, and even more so if it's mashed with lemon zest and pepper flakes, delivered on ciabatta or spooled with pasta. Saying “no” to food is a language I’ve lost. But certainly, I had my share of balky childhood quirks, too.

When I was her age, I was already a brat. Frank, my dad, was an army dad, and as his two sons, Kevin and I were army brats. My earliest memories are of Fort Carson, Colorado: the open field of grass that yawned between our backdoor and the playground; a corner room towards the back of our house carpeted with Legos. There was the cul-de-sac where our neighbor, a hunter, hung a skinned deer in his garage, chatting up his plans to make jerky—I’d like to forget that.

But most of childhood isn't exactly distinct. I’d even forgotten those damned sandwiches.

I never liked the doldrums of packed lunch. I wanted the slop of mac & cheese that other kids bought with their lunch cards, the pizza slice they tucked away on special Tuesdays, and above all, that papery container of chocolate milk. What I didn’t want was my hand-me-down lunch bag, with its worn velcro and unforgettable lunch-bag-smell.

I didn’t mind most of the contents. Maybe there were carrots or apple slices. And often pretzel rods because those were my dad’s favorite. On the best days there were Dunkaroos (those were the coolest) and Yoo-hoo, the shelf-stable alternative to chocolate milk. And before the practice was forbidden—heaven forbid another student caught a glimpse—there were notes from mom, her unearned praise written in a bubbly script that blurred on dampened paper.

But pressed on the bottom was always an unwelcomed classic: PB&J. Perhaps it was their bleakness; they were slumped and damaged in the trenches of my bag; they would jostle in the throes of the school-bus shuffle, the Concord grape erupting through the crust, splattered against the plastic, staining the pale, moist bread. But most likely, it’s because I was jealous of those other lunches, or bored of the PB&J’s relentless appearance in my bag; a joyless, dejected boomerang. I can't remember a truly substantive reason, or whether one actually existed.

But I hated those sandwiches. I took pleasure in throwing them away. Every single one, crust and all.

Photo by James Ransom

I never said anything to my mom, and never asked for anything different. I knew what happened when we battle parents on food: We end up with spoonfuls of peas in our mouths.

Over time, my daily sandwich toss became inherent to the process of lunch. Sandwiches were garbage, like junk mail, filtered mindlessly, trashed unconsciously. By middle school, after graduating to the cafeteria lunch, I’d forgotten the ritual of the sandwich toss entirely.

But years ago, in a conversation of miscellaneous context, I offhandedly referenced the rote purge: “I used to hate PB&Js; I always threw them away.” The words hung in the air, almost sublime, before they struck.

“You threw all of those sandwiches away?” questioned my mom.

In that moment, the sandwiches resurfaced as I pictured their multitude: Those suffocated stacks sealed in plastic bags, those droopy bodies dumped in landfills from Colorado to New Jersey. Just then, the gravity of tossing food so regularly was made real: how unforgivable it was (and is), how careless I had been. The unfairness of such waste was staggering.

I also pictured mom, Lisa, purchasing each loaf with pinched pennies, unfurling each twisty-tie, spreading endless strokes of purple jam in between the crusted lines of white bread, weekday after weekday. She remembers the day when she switched from creamy Jiff to extra crunchy Jiff; it was undoubtedly harder to spread but would surely be tastier—had it ever been tasted. All for nothing, all for waste.

“You threw all of those sandwiches away,” I say to myself. “You brat.”

Name your kryptonite PB&J in the comments below.

9 Comments

JelloDynasty November 2, 2016
Every morning my mom gives me a milk carton to drink on the way to school. I hated it; I always suck the air on top out to make it look hollow and throw it away when they are not paying attention. From grade 1 to 12. My mom has no idea about it though and still think I grow so tall because of all the milk. Maybe there's something in the air of the milk carton :p
 
Brittany R. June 8, 2016
I always ate my sandwiches, but never told my mom that I wished she'd cut them on the diagonal instead of up and down, and that I wanted them wrapped in tin foil instead of plastic wrap. I mentioned this as an adult, and she said my grandmother had always cut on the diagonal and used tin foil, and she hated it so made sure not to do it for me!
 
cv June 7, 2016
Infinite sadness
 
Anna June 7, 2016
Love the way you told your story. In my case, undiagnosed celiac led me to throw out all kinds of food. I'd eat around bread, skip pasta, eat the toppings off of pizza. Instinctively, I knew that flour-based foods were making me sick, but it took me a long time to parse out whether it was due to carbs, a preservative, something I'd eaten earlier, blood sugar, etc. If there's a pattern to what your child throws out, maybe there's more to it.
 
Sauertea June 7, 2016
I used to make my daughter pbj's on wheat bread in an effort to avoid white bread. I found out later she traded them all. I gave up on the wheat bread for her, ever after. Personally, my Mom used to make beef brisket with Lipton onion soup mix wrapped in foil for use in weekly sandwiches. As glorious as brisket is when it is warm and juicy, it is a sorry mass of cold tough meat when exiled to a sandwich! I hated that. Years later, I mentioned brisket and my mother said, "I hate brisket". Leaving me to wonder why we had it at lunch
 
emgoh June 7, 2016
I'm a food separatist. Not so much as when I was a kid but I still get squeamish when certain foods touch or, heaven forbid, are combined. I was a pain to make school lunches for. Mom was one of those earthy brown bread homemade granola types. She wanted me to be healthy, I get that. But oh how I longed for a Ding Dong or a Ho Ho. And nobody was going to trade me one of those for the dry-sucks-all-the-moisture-from-your-mouth-and-scrapes-all-the-way-down-when-attempting-to-swallow granola bars. Weirdly, as an adult I bought those longed-for sweets and quickly found out I don't like chocolate cake. Ah, well. Forbidden sweets are better left to the great unknown I suppose. :)
 
Jenny June 7, 2016
This is really beautiful. thank you.
 
Schylar B. June 7, 2016
If I had known you, I might have dug your sandwiches out from the trash and eaten them myself! I ate an alarming number of pb&j sandwiches every day from 8-18 years old. I've since graduated to nicer jams and almond butter, but bring on the nostalgia!
 
Kenzi W. June 7, 2016
Brava. This is so honest and gives me the bad kind of goosebumps, only because I used to do it too, even if only for a little while. We are reformed.