I have heard that a frequent job interview question for engineers is to explain how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Although I will never be an engineer, I do know how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The first thing you should know is that there is not one way to make a PB&J. There is the way you make it for yourself when you are hungry and tired and you cannot think of anything else to eat. When that is the case, you make it quickly. You spread peanut butter haphazardly on a piece of bread, top it with jelly and then fold it in half. “I’ll just eat half a sandwich,” you think “then make something better.” But the truth is, once you start eating a peanut butter & jelly sandwich you realize there’s really nothing better and so you do it again, this time more carefully.
There is the way you make it when you are broke and busy and you stand at the sink eating first a spoonful of peanut butter, then a spoonful of jelly because you forgot to buy bread and you are trying to avoid going to the store until you get paid because there is too much else that you need. But for a minute, with that spoonful of peanut butter in your mouth, everything feels good.
There is the way you make it for your daughter who takes it every day for lunch, grades K-5. You take two pieces of cinnamon raisin bread and carefully spread the peanut butter on one piece and the jelly on the other and put it in a sandwich bag all while finding lost shoes, pencils, and mittens.
When you make a PB&J everyday, you and your kids begin to discuss opening a restaurant that only serves peanut butter and jelly. You decide to have different kinds of bread, different kinds of peanut butter, different kinds of jelly and toppings. Customers would be able to come in early and grab a bagged lunch on the way to work. One summer day you explain this plan to your friend, an art teacher. You are on the beach in back of his apartment and he lays out rocks to illustrate the store plan. He has long, curly hair and even though he has it tied back, as he always does, little pieces are still blowing in the wind. Just like your daughter’s. Your friend wants to know if you would cut the sandwiches made to order, and he says, “You could cut it across from top to bottom, or side to side, or corner to corner,” and your daughter says, “You mean diagonally?” And he laughs at himself for not thinking she’d know the word. Later she holds his hand as they walk up the stairs to the apartment, and it is rare for her to hold the hand of anyone but you. Then, that fall, he steps in front of a train and no one knows why. After that, when you make the sandwich you cut it diagonally, and think of the way his hair looked on the beach, just like a child’s and the way he laughed.
Sometimes, when your kids are little you make a peanut butter and jelly the normal way, only you use really good bread and you put it in the panini press because the thought of making dinner only to have it rejected is too much for you that day, but if you make it into a panini, it counts as hot food. Then, when they are older you still make it for dinner and pretend you’re nostalgic, but really, you just like it.
There is also the way you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a child who is really old enough to make their own sandwiches. First, you complain. You tell them that they really should make their own sandwich. You say this while taking out the bread and the jelly. Then, you spread the peanut butter all the way to the edge of the bread. You top it with jelly, not quite to the edge of the bread, because that would be too sweet. You cut the sandwich in half and hand it to the child on a plate. You spread the peanut butter and jelly just so because there is really not much else you can do for this child. They are at an age where nothing feels quite right and everything seems too hard. The child has told you that even their friends say that you make the best PB&J, because of course, you’ve made sandwiches for their friends. You know it’s probably not true. But sometimes you think maybe it is. Maybe if you make the sandwich just right, your child will feel loved and treasured. You think maybe if you make enough sandwiches, they’ll have what they need to get through the day, the week, being a teenager.
This is how you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.