Saturday, October 2, 2010

Peanut Butter, Vegemite and Nutella

In my travels, I've had the opportunity to try out all sorts of new foods, which I think is a wonderful habit to adopt. I am always in favor of people expanding their culinary horizons. Sampling local and exotic fare like verivorst (blood sausage) and samgyetang (chicken and ginseng soup) was always exciting, but at times I really missed some of my old standbys.

For instance, I recall when I was in Estonia how much I missed peanut butter. I hadn't realized quite how ubiquitous it was in the US until I left the country. In my long, rambling, somewhat homesick letters home, I may have mentioned my longing for peanut butter once or twice.

Well, my parents must have said something to my aunt and uncle when they talked, because that next week, I got a care package stuffed with typical American foodstuffs, most of which had a disturbingly long shelf life. Some of the things, like the big 5-pound block of Velveeta, were something of a curiosity in Estonia, where for the most part, people still cooked with and ate things that were recognizable as food - with the exception of sült. Other items, like summer sausage, cookies and a pizza mix, were distributed and devoured quickly. One item in particular made my heart beat a little faster.

You got it, my aunt sent me the largest jar of peanut butter I have ever seen in my life. It was so large that I think it almost qualified as a bucket. That first whiff of peanutty goodness that wafted out after I unscrewed the jar was as indescribable a sensation as I've ever had: reminders of home, childhood, a warm-fuzzy sensation of comfort, not to mention how it stoked my hunger.

Although my love of peanut butter is well-documented, not everyone feels the same way. My buddy Tony, another English teacher, was an Aussie, and as such, not a big fan of the sticky brown, earthy heaven-in-a-jar that is peanut butter. Instead, he grew up on Vegemite on toast. I'd first heard of Vegemite years before when I was on an exchange program in the USSR. A few floors above us in the dorm was a rowdy, rolicking bunch of students from Perth, DownUnder. They'd prepared for the deprivations in the USSR of that era by filling their suitcases with rolls of toilet paper and jars of Vegemite, whereas we Yanks had filled ours with rolls of toilet paper and jars of peanut butter.

After one evening of cross-cultural exchange with the Aussies and some of the Russians in our dorm, punctuated by many bottles of authentic Russian vodka and too many renditions of poorly-sung Russian folk songs, we each brought out the culinary treasures from our hoard for the others to try. I was the only American in our group who did not find Vegemite abhorrent. I rather liked the salty yeastiness. What's not to love about something called Concentrated Autolyzed Yeast Extract? Mmmm...

When I shared a house with two Turkish graduate students when I was teaching ages ago, I encountered another person whose love of peanut butter did not match my own. My housemate Tolga, told me that he thought that peanut butter was a vile substance with the taste and consistency of shit and that even the smell of it made him want to vomit.

Strong words, Tolga.

Instead, he liked a nice piece of toast with Nutella. What is this Nutella? I asked him. When he'd recovered from the shock, he brought out his jar of Nutella and changed my life. Sounds melodramatic, I know, but before that point, I had had no idea that hazelnuts and chocolate could be married so harmoniously and, dare I say it, orgasmically. I always came back to my beloved peanut butter, though I'd cheat on it occasionally with that dreamy chocolate spread. Last Christmas I rediscovered Nutella while I was baking up a bunch of sweet treats to give to the kids' teachers. I had found a recipe for Chocolate hazelnut sticks which called for Nutella.

Divine. To-die-for. You won't want to share them with anyone.

I still have a significant amount of the Nutella left, and I ended up shoving the jar to the back of the cabinet until recently. Lucy saw a commercial for Nutella and said, eyes huge, "Mommy, we have to get that at the store!" When I told her that I thought I still had a jar of it in the kitchen, she ran in there, shouting, "Where, where? I want to try it! Please, please... PLEASE?!"

She got her wish, and Nutella on whole wheat toast is now her preferred breakfast, and Natalie's and perhaps even mine. It is also tremendous on sliced fruit, crackers and, as my kids and I have discovered, straight out of the jar.

Isn't it great when kids try out new foods? ;-)