As a relatively short, only mildly athletic woman who puts more effort into avoiding sports than actually playing them, I don’t have a lot in common with professional basketball players. But, we do share one particular predilection — a love for peanut butter and jelly. As ESPN reports, a surprising number of teams, including the Rockets, the Clippers, the Spurs, and the team that started it all, the Celtics, have game day PB&J mandates. Whether with smooth or crunchy peanut butter, white or whole wheat bread, strawberry or grape jelly, players are turning to the grade school classic to fuel up before tip-off.
The trend, ESPN reports, dates back to the 2007-2008 season, when a hungry unnamed Celtics player wanted a pre-game PB&J and teammate Kevin Garnett agreed and had one too. Garnett played particularly well that night and soon declared the sandwich a new game day requirement.
While I haven’t dribbled a basketball in at least a decade, I can relate to the “performance enhancing” merits of PB&J. I wake up ravenous and can never seem to eat enough to fill up and stay full until lunch. And like most people, I lead a busy, on-the-go lifestyle, so I don’t have time to prepare or eat snacks all morning. The only — and I mean only — breakfast that satisfies my crazy morning hunger and keeps me going until midday is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’ve always chalked this up to the fact that it combines carbs, fat and protein, but I’m hardly a nutritionist, and won’t attempt to explain what’s actually happening. It just works.
I’m also convinced there’s more to the magic of PB&J. I think that at least part of the reason the players like their pre-game sandwich so much is that it’s a source of comfort before what is presumably a pretty big challenge: playing competitive basketball in front of both a live and television audience. Most of us have been eating PB&J since childhood. It’s something our parents and grandparents probably made for us; it may even be one of our earliest food memories. And when we’re faced with a challenge, or just a hard day, there’s something wonderfully reassuring about food from our past.
Even Celtic’s strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo recognizes the sandwich’s role as a comforting ritual. In the ESPN article, he notes that even if Kevin Garnett doesn’t actually eat the PB&J, he needs it to be there. It’s a sandwich that doesn't let you down and just knowing it’s there makes everything OK.
I grew up with a stay at home mom who picked me up from school every day and brought me home for lunch. On the rare occasions I had to stay for lunch, I was miserable. In hindsight it’s not that scary and more in-school lunches probably would have done wonders for my social skills, but at the time, it was painful. The only solace was that tucked into that brown paper bag was a sandwich made by my mom, and not just any sandwich, but — you guessed it — PB&J. My mother always used too much grape jelly and since it was made on super soft white bread, the sandwich was always squished and misshapen. I didn't care. It was the taste of home; it was the taste of my mom making my lunch and that got me through the hour.
As a college freshman away from home for the first time, I once again turned to my old favorite. Dorm life doesn’t exactly lend itself to a well-stocked pantry, but I eventually found a solution. You could buy a box of graham crackers, along with peanut butter and jelly, at the campus convenience store and they would keep for weeks before going stale or being devoured by a hungover roommate. When I was feeling homesick or just sick of cafeteria food, PB&J went a long way in making me feel better.
I’d like to say I grew out of my PB&J crutch, but even years later, when I found myself in a job I really didn’t like, with coworkers that weren’t very nice, that sandwich made the days a bit more bearable. This time around it was made in the office cafeteria, which had very basic peanut butter and jelly supplies, but the most incredible bread. It was some kind of whole grain variety and studded with all these tiny seeds. I ran two slices through one of those wacky conveyer belt-style toasters you only see in cafeterias, then added the peanut butter and jelly. And since I was trying to avoid my office mates, I took my time, getting just the right level of toasting and just the right amount of peanut butter and jelly. Back at my desk, that sandwich eased me into what were becoming increasingly hostile days at the office. It was also the thing that got me out of bed in the morning. Knowing that I could have my PB&J gave me something to look forward to and took some of the dread out of heading to work.
Nowadays I’ve learned how to better deal with my feelings and unpleasant situations, but I’m not immune to bad days or moments when I just don’t want to do whatever it is I need to do. Lately, for work and personal reasons, I’ve had to take a bunch of very early flights, which means getting up way earlier than my freelancer brain can even contemplate. It took just one crappy airport croissant — and the ensuing hunger pangs — to convince me that I needed to pack my own breakfast. And it took seconds for me to realize peanut butter and jelly was the obvious answer. If my school day lunches taught me anything, it’s that PB&J is portable. Now I use sturdier, whole grain bread, and wrap the sandwich in foil. It slips into my bag and doesn’t require any utensils, refrigeration or heating up, making it incredibly convenient. And for anyone who’s skeptical, I assure you that my seat mates are often quite jealous.
All kinds of food can soothe, but few are as easy and accessible as peanut butter and jelly. The ingredients are widely available, and as long as you don’t get too fancy, they’re mostly affordable. Plus, anyone can make PB&J — there are no fussy techniques or knife skills required. And indulging in peanut butter and jelly is a long way from eating away your sorrows with a quart of ice cream. It’s sensible and satisfying and it just might be one of the best ways to brighten a bad day.
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Lauren Salkeld is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and recipe developer. She spends much of her time testing and editing recipes for cookbooks.