Out of the corner of my eye packages wrapped in orange cellophane wait patiently. I shift my weight from left to
right. The tabloids scream, “Monkey on Mars Says Send Bananas,” “99 Ways to Drive Him Wild.” And even though I’d love to know how someone could come up with 99 of anything, my mouth starts to salivate and all I can think of is biting down on a chocolate shell, creamy peanut butter squeezing between my teeth. Some days it’s the break-it-in-half and lick-all-the-peanut-butter out version. Or my personal favorite: rip open a king-sized pack and devour four individually wrapped cups in under ten minutes. If I were on Mars I’d want this more than any banana—and if you really want to drive me wild dangle one of these in front of my face.
But if you’re like the majority of my desi friends the thought of eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup probably makes you want to barf.
I can relate.
The scene: my first desi potluck. The food: rice. The victim: yogurt.
Me: What are you doing with that? You’re going to mix this with that? You can’tbe serious.
Them: It is very good. You must try it.
Me: No way! The only thing that should be mixed with yogurt is fruit.
Two heaping tablespoons of yogurt submit to being mixed and mashed by hand; lick, slurp, ahhh, repeat. I try to look away but can’t. This type of yogurt—thin, milky water floating on top, sour smell—tells me one thing: It’s gone bad and if I eat it I’m going to end up in the ER with food poisoning.
When I first realized my Indian friends didn’t like peanut butter I was surprised. Peanuts aren’t strangers to Indian cuisine: toasted in coconut rice, ground up to make spicy peanut powder and sticky laddoos, uh, hello—tamarind rice! So, what’s wrong with peanut butter?
My friend Vinayak, “It tastes awful. Butter and peanuts are never supposed to be mixed. It sticks to the top of your mouth and that makes it a pain to eat. Why should food ever be a pain?”
My friend Vidya, “I used to have a roommate who left the spoon with peanut butter gunk still on it in the sink. Ewww. It is yucky to wash a spoon that’s had peanut butter licked off it.”
My friend Ananth, “It’s an alien food. It’s not something we grew up with.”
Q: Could it be that only desis in America prejudge peanut butter?
A: I’m standing in the candy aisle at Sam’s Club. “Oh, get this one—it’s got Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Reese’s Pieces; all the peanut butter stuff. I bet your family will love it.” My friend Archie looks at me like I just told her to take mouse poop back to Bangalore. “No, no,” she says, raising her hand, “Last time those peanut butter thingies were the only ones left. Even the kids wouldn’t eat them. We had to throw them away.”
Q: Do Indians who despise peanut butter think it’s a total waste of perfectly good peanuts?
A: Some of my desi friends (and you know how you are) dollop Skippy onto their children’s plates; a bribe to make an uninteresting dosa a bit more fun to nibble. Things get ugly when your little one ignores the bread and goes straight for the butter. “You are not getting more peanut butter until you eat your … until you take X bites of that … pleeaasse?”
Okay, so I’ve already established my feelings about mixing yogurt with rice. I suppose the physical act of eating yogurt-rice isn’t painful, but watching it drip down people’s wrists makes me want to finish dinner with my eyes closed.
The smeared spoon of peanut butter in the sink; guilty—but when you’re standing at the sink eating it straight from the jar it just feels so good to toss it into a dirty milk glass. So it’s not a food that people in India grow up eating—this I can understand. The yoghurt and rice combo wasn’t part of my childhood, so I don’t have all the answers to why some desi people are nuts for it—but I can tell you why I am nuts for peanuts, uh butter.
You’re probably wondering what makes peanut butter so tasty, so tempting, so satisfying, so American?
Growing up in a house where luxury foods like Oreo Cookies and Tostitos were rare visitors, peanut butter was the ol’ reliable: two bucks meant a giant jar on the table or tucked behind the cabinet door at all times. If you think about it—what is peanut butter? It’s just a paste you spread with a knife, usually onto a piece of bread, or the occasional cracker; how hard is that? Even a five year old can do it. Which brings us to point number two:
It’s easy. You don’t need to build a fire; or start up a stove or microwave. You don’t need pots and pans. You don’t need adult supervision.
Two tablespoons of peanut butter have 8 grams of protein. Peanut butter also boasts vitamins and minerals, even a bit of fiber.
Me: Mom, I’m hungry.
Mom: Make yourself a sandwich. There’s peanut butter on the table. Jelly’s in the fridge.
Two hours later.
Me: I want a snack.
Mom: Have a PB&J.
Me: (Rolls eyes, holds stomach) But I don’t want another sandwich.
Mom: Eat it. It’s good for you.
Point number three: It’s nutritious. Great news for busy parents, even if there were times when I preferred lettuce coated in mayonnaise instead of eating one more PB&J sandwich.
The final reason why peanut butter is worshiped in America has to do with pie.
Whoa, wait a minute, you say; peanut butter pie? Now, before you dial your best friend to tell her the quickest way to ruin a pie—I should let you know that it doesn’t stop with pie, oh no, there’s peanut butter cookies, even peanut butter fudge. You’re probably thinking just because you can dump it into a dessert doesn’t make peanut butter lovable.
It’s not the ingredients. It’s standing at the stove watching my mom, helping her stir, licking the spoon; devouring a cool slice of pie on a balmy August evening. It’s remembering my long-passed Aunt, her holiday fudge; made with peanut butter instead of chocolate—the kind of delicious that guaranteed a happy-to-have stomach ache. It’s rolling dough into balls with my younger brother, fighting over who gets to smash them down with the prongs of a fork; criss-crossed surfaces puffing into soft cookies in the glow of the oven light. It’s not the ingredients. It’s the food your mom fed you when you were a toddler, when you were a teenager with growing bones, when you were a young adult buried in studies. It’s what you now make with your own hands. It’s what comforts you when you’re far from home. It is home.
What could be better than that?
And now it’s time for confession: I’ve never actually tried yogurt-rice. AND I secretly dream about being a yogurt-rice connoisseur; to mix it with a bit of pickle, pat my stomach, shake my head from side to side; words unnecessary, satisfied and full.
You know what? I’m going to do it. I’m going to try a food I told myself I’d never, ever eat. That’s right I’m going to mix this with that. And if this peanut butter loving girl can set a date with a rice cooker and a tub of Fat-Free Dannon, you can try something new, too.
Go on, don’t be scared. Get out there and give peanut butter a chance.
Cristina Chopalli, of Chicago, Illinois is currently at work on a collection of fiction and essays about her experiences within Indian culture. She is the organizer of Pravasi: Chicago’s premiere Indian social club. Her blog can be found at http://www.cristinachopalli.com.