On a cool night in early 1931, J.D. Holland parked his car near the Farmers’ Café in Statesville, North Carolina, and went inside to eat dinner. He walked back to the vehicle no more than twenty minutes later to discover that a thief had broken in. As Holland took stock of his belongings, however, he realized that the burglar had overlooked some treasures in favor of two rib-sticking staples: peanut butter and mayonnaise. “Inferring that the food was taken by some one who was really hungry, Mr. Holland stated today that he would like to get in touch with the fellow and he would take pleasure in giving him a full meal, free of charge,” the Statesville Record and Landmark reported.
Through the hardships of the Great Depression and the lean years that followed, peanut butter and mayonnaise kept many struggling households afloat. They were also the ingredients in a sandwich that was once as popular as peanut butter and jelly in parts of the South. “I have tried to tell people about this sandwich. They’ve all thought I was joking,” says Brandon Chonko, a Georgia poultry farmer who has been spreading awareness of the peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich using his well-followed Twitter account. “I remember being at my grandma’s house in Covington, Georgia, and asking her for a peanut butter sandwich,” Chonko says. “She added mayonnaise. I took a bite and thought, ‘What the—?’ It was like sour peanut butter. But talking to my mom and my aunt, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah! Takes me back! So good!’”
“I’ll be up front with you: I’ve never actually eaten one,” says Andrew Broocker, the founder of Virginia peanut butter company Reginald’s Homemade. “But every weekend, I go the farmers’ market in Richmond, and I can’t tell you the number of people who tell me that that growing up, their favorite sandwich was peanut butter and mayonnaise.”
Newspaper clippings from the national heyday of the peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich, a period that seems to have begun in the 1930s and continued through the 1960s, provide evidence that the practice of adding mayonnaise to peanut butter could have originated as a way of transforming rough-hewn nut butters into spreadable pastes. In 1948, the Salt Lake Tribune advised readers to “moisten” peanut butter with mayonnaise before mixing it with bacon and smearing it onto a protein-packed sandwich. A recipe for peanut butter and cheese spread that appeared in the Record, of Troy, New York, in 1943, called for just enough mayonnaise to thin peanut butter to a “spreadable consistency,” and plenty of shredded American cheese.
Many mid-century newspaper recipes incorporated extra ingredients: Publications from California to New York suggested lunchtime combinations that included peanut butter, mayonnaise, and diced pickles, and peanut butter, mayonnaise and deviled ham.
Below the Mason-Dixon line, though, the sandwich was at times a means of survival, and cooks were less prone to experimentation. Covington, Kentucky chef Justin Lalor’s grandfather ate peanut butter and mayonnaise on white bread while driving a logging truck in Alabama. Charleston chef Nathan Thurston took peanut butter, mayonnaise, and banana sandwiches to school. Food writer Ronni Lundy grew up in Corbin, Kentucky, eating simpler mayonnaise sandwiches, and only discovered the combination of peanut butter and mayonnaise after she and her sister decided to transform an assemblage of holiday leftovers into sandwiches. (Today, she likes peanut butter, mayonnaise, and dill pickles on thinly sliced rye bread.)
My own grandmother, who is from Greenville, South Carolina, never ate peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches as a child—only because she never liked mayonnaise. “All I would eat growing up was peanut butter and white bread,” she says. “It wasn’t unusual for a child to do that. I do think most of the adults put mayonnaise on their peanut butter sandwiches.” To this day, though, the sandwich is a staple at her house. My grandfather is a fan, although I never knew that until I asked him over Thanksgiving dinner. “He has to have mayonnaise,” my grandmother says. “He’s been eating peanut butter sandwiches that way his whole life.”