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.
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.
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.”
kryptonite PB&J in the comments below.