With the blithe ignorance of youth and the enthusiasm of an acolyte, I once sat over a restaurant lunch, dining with the chef that had prepared it, and explained the perfect way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
He looked at me as if I were daft. There we were, chatting over impeccably plated portions of wild-caught salmon over frisee salad, or some such elegance, and my subject of choice involved store-bought sliced bread and chunky versus smooth. But the fact was, I was an expert at lunch by that point. I had been serving it daily for years and nearly built a business on bag lunches made to order.
More about my almost-empire in a moment. First, the perfect PB&J.
It begins with the bread. Not the flabby, fall-apart white bread that builds strong bodies 12 ways, but rather, a sturdier loaf with a denser crumb. Pepperidge Farm makes a nice country white that will suit well.
Then the peanut butter. Only chunky.
Finally, the fruit spread. Indulge in a strawberry, peach or apricot preserve well-studded with fruit and leave behind the gelatinous grape you may have enjoyed in childhood. Remember, we’re aiming for the ultimate here.
Now to assemble: First, lightly toast the bread. The best way to do this is in a toaster oven. Lay the sliced one atop the other, so that the outsides toast while the insides steam. Then separate the slices and on the soft, steamed bread, spread the peanut butter on one side and the jam on the other. Of course, cut the finished sandwich in half to serve.
After explaining this to the chef, I sat entirely pleased with myself, expecting him to endorse my recipe. It had been honed by repetition, for a husband for whom I had been making lunches for years. That loving service was the foundation what almost became Mag’s Bags.
It started because we were young and poor. I supported my husband, a graduate student, on the meager pay of a newspaper reporter in a small town. Bag lunches were economical. I sent him to school with one every day.
His buddies were not so well served. When lunchtime came, they foraged from the vending machines in the student lounge to make lunch from chips and snack cakes. Eventually, one asked my husband if I, for a fee, would make him lunch as well.
And then another asked. And perhaps a third. My husband brought the proposal home. I thought it was a great idea. It’s as easy to make four or five bag lunches as one or two. I would purchase ingredients economically and make a small profit on each lunch. I could expand to 10 or 12 lunches and by the end of the school year, accumulate some small wealth. I was all in.
But in the end, we decided it was more sensible for my husband to concentrate on his studies than a fledgling lunch business. The idea died before it was born.
Many years later I learned that a bag-lunch business began Paula Deen’s empire of television cooking shows, restaurants, cookbooks and products sold on the home shopping channel. As a struggling, single mother with small children she resorted to what she knew how to do: Make lunches. Her company was called The Bag Lady. Eventually she was serving offices all over Savannah, Ga.
I rarely blow my own horn about this. Few people know today that I am the queen of sandwiches, at least on this side of the Mason-Dixon line.