No muss, no fuss, no crust, no culture

May 15, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

I have finally figured out what's wrong with this country. It's the frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We have now reached the point in our national cultural evolution where a significant number of adults do not have time or interest in making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their children, so they buy them - $2.89 for four little, round PBJs with crimped edges - out of the ever-expanding frozen food section at the supermarket.

The other day, at the Charles Street Safeway in Baltimore, a little old lady stood back near the dairy section, handing out samples of a product I have seen but refused to acknowledge - Smucker's Uncrustables.

I have been aware of this product since 2003, but I kept hoping it would bomb.

It was my hope - indeed, my belief - that American consumers would reject it.

I believed that mothers and fathers would have too much pride to buy this product. I mean, who needs mass-produced, packaged, frozen PBJs? Everyone knows how to make one, and every household probably has the ingredients. Even the busiest parents can take five minutes out of their schedules to build the Great American Sandwich for their children's school lunches, field trips or after-school snack. Don't tell me it's come to this.

But it has.

Uncrustables are still out there, on the retail market and in the schools. In the supermarket the other day, the grape jelly version was almost gone from the shelf, and shoppers had made quite a dent in the strawberry one as well.

The sweet lady at the Safeway handed me a slice. This time, I decided to try it. I needed to know what the secret was. Certainly there must be something special about this product to keep it on the market for three years. It must have some unusual ingredient. Uncrustables must be more than soft white bread, peanut butter and jelly.

But they're not.

Uncrustables are soft white bread rounds, with two thin lawyers of peanut butter and a glop of jelly in between. The crust is gone, of course, and the edges crimped like ravioli. It's about the size of a Tollhouse cookie, or a Moonpie. It weighs about 2 ounces.

At $2.89 for a box of four, these small PBJs cost about 72 cents each - not to mention the cost of electricity needed to keep the product frozen from the factory to your home.

I can make a full-size PBJ at home for half that price, maybe even less, depending on the price of ingredients. I did some figuring over the weekend, based on nondiscounted items in the supermarket: I could make up to 20 PBJs on cheap, white bread for about $7.20.

And that's without cutting off the crust and making the sandwich round, wasting the jelly-and-peanut-butter-smeared corners.

When I make a PBJ for my kids, there's no electricity involved - no baking, no freezing - and the packaging consists of a plastic sandwich bag. But this isn't even about money. It's about what this product represents.

Uncrustables are a symbol of the decline of American society. We are a big, fat, lazy, wasteful, gullible culture. We'll swallow anything. We'll sell our parental pride for $2.89.

Recently I was in a supermarket in Pennsylvania and I was struck by something - the size of the frozen food section. Again, this is something I've been trying to ignore and resist - the growth of "nonfresh" foods and the temptation to toss in the shopping cart a processed, frozen meal. Americans sit at home and watch Emeril and others prepare dinners on television, but apparently millions of viewers take no cue or inspiration from this and just buy frozen meals. I see people in the supermarket checkouts with stacks of them.

We have gotten lazy and stupid about food, no question about it. A lot of people don't even make time to wash lettuce anymore.

I have many times been told I'm a great chef - and I'm not. I just cook. I take pride in making meals and sandwiches for my kids. People walk by my house and they smell something cooking, many times something with olive oil and garlic, or lately ginger and teriyaki. I have this reputation as a guy who cooks - as if it were something unusual or unique. I tell people I made soup, and they are dumbfounded I would start one from scratch. They don't believe me when I say I make my own marinara sauce and don't pour it from a jar.

I guess it was my upbringing. My mother, the former Rose Popolo, cooked everything from scratch. The only things in the freezer are ice cubes and Klondike bars. The other day, at her house in Massachusetts, she made two pies from scratch after sending my brother to a local farm to pick rhubarb. This woman is 92 years old and still going strong.

Rosie is not unusual. A lot of you had mothers like her, women who cooked and baked, even in the busy squeeze of modern life. I bet your mamas even made you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Their parental pride was not for sale, and we were a better nation for it.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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