This year marks the thirty-sixth anniversary of my graduation from high school. Putting this number in some larger perspective is kind of weird—even a little bit disturbing—because I turned eighteen the year I graduated. And, lo and behold, I have subsequently lived eighteen more years and then another eighteen years after that. The sum total of my entire existence in 1980, which seemed to have covered a lot of ground at the time, was a mere drop in the bucket.
With the obvious accelerating passage of time, I can’t help but reflect on all that was and how I arrived at the present. I will say that a handful of things in my life have remained pretty constant through the years, like my preferred breakfast: peanut butter on toast with coffee. Growing up in the Bronx with an extended family—three generations under one roof—brought peanut butter and coffee, too, into my life at an early age. If we so desired, coffee was served to us at seven- and eight years old. Maybe it was an Italian thing or just the simpler times—I don’t know. What I do know is that my grandmother—a culinary wizard whose likes I will never see again—always kept a big glass jar of Skippy peanut butter on the premises for her grandsons. She, though, never once sampled the stuff. There was something about “peanuts bud,” as she pronounced it in her thick Italian accent, which absolutely repulsed her.
I remember finding a mini-jar of Skippy peanut butter in my Christmas stocking one year—glass again with an aluminum top. And not one of those jars ever ended up in the trash. They were repurposed time and again in an age before recycling; in an age of peanut butter. My family used to get a circular loaf of Italian bread delivered daily—in the 1960s and 1970s—from a nearby wholesale bakery called Willow Sunny. Imagine having a fresh slice of bakery bread slathered with peanut butter every morning for breakfast. My grandmother cut the bread like she was playing a violin—a true maestro—knife slicing across toward her body.
Fast forward a few years to an earth-shattering discovery of mine. I learned there was more to peanut butter than Skippy. There was Peter Pan, Superman, Smuckers, and the best of them all, I concluded—Jif. Naturally, I expressed my newfound opinion to all who would listen that Jif tasted a whole lot better than Skippy. A certain family elder—undeviating in her worldview then as well as now—sniffed, “You just want to be different.” Granted, kids want to be recognized as unique individuals and I was no different. There’s that word again. But the fact remains that I did—believe it or not—prefer Jif to Skippy. I still do as a matter of fact. The proof is in the plastic jar of Jif that I pluck out of the cupboard at breakfast time all these years later. I guess I was really different after all.