Nothing sticks to the roof of my mouth or the crevices of my memory quite like peanut butter. The salty, smooth, and sweet substance is as comforting to me in an explorative vegetarian sauce as it was in Mama’s indulgent PB&J sandwiches. It is simple and complex, a perfect reflection of my relationship with the assembler herself.
In my childhood, my mother and I were close, but something broke along the way. My most beloved and most painful memories of my mother and me stem from our equally catastrophic relationships with food. My parents both grew up in large families where money was either tight or non-existent, leaving no room for food waste. They met in the Army, their escape route from the cycle of poverty, and merged their survival instincts into parental technique. Their experiences bled into how they raised my siblings and me, and the combination of long days away from home and an often-constricting budget required that each of us learn how to cook. The youngest in a household where learning to cook was a necessity, I was keen to please. My father gave us culturally stirring and storied recipes—techniques learned by practiced instinct rather than dog-eared cookbooks, recipes that nourished body and soul.
My mother gave me a mirror. Where my father forged a connection with the Native American culture on his side, and a disastrous love for all things branded Little Debbie, my mother’s European heritage was ignored, replaced with a heavy reliance on food as both healer and punisher. I was her little baker, reflecting her childhood and everything she prided yet hated about herself. I was the chubby, food-obsessed body from her youth. As my years and waistline grew, I reflected her negative relationship to food, and the comfort of her humble sandwich evaporated, as did our friendship.
Gone were the PB&J lunches, usurped by protein-packed cold cuts and dry celery. I hopped from gymnastics to swimming, to martial arts, to gym membership. We learned to hate our bodies and food. We counted calories together, demonized carbs, and dreamed of svelte bodies. Scarred by her childhood bullies and struggles to maintain military standard fitness during physical exams, the reflection became clear: I was to be the success she never had. My own bullies, nutritionist’s glares, and pre-teen stretch marks were all discussed at length.
I hardly ate and exercised until I could not stand. Anorexic but fat. Unsuccessful and disappointing. Meanwhile, I watched my mom’s reaction to food separate from mine. Stressed? Eat. Eat protein. Eat peanut butter. Busy? Eat more. It is fine if I exercise. Punish my body with food. Oddly, in this distance, I empathized. I regarded her fear as familiar. The peanut butter to my jelly. Where I was empty, she was full. These were our self-inflicted sentences and the way to heal.
When my mother helped me move from my childhood home in Colorado to Chicago to pursue an acting career, she worried I would not feed myself, a recent college grad and herbivore with a tight budget. But my parents ensured that we knew how to care for ourselves. They each stood by the idea that “as long as we had these ingredients, we would never starve.” For my father, this philosophy meant culture and heritage. For my mother, it meant love, love of something as simple as a jar of Jif. Love of her children, enough to pack their lunches meticulously, trying her best to ensure we were fed and nourished. Though I still struggle with my recovery, I crave nothing so much as my mother’s PB&J. It wraps me in memory, salty from tears shed over self-hatred, smooth from her gentle caress, and sweet, promising healing through pain, no matter what it be.
Autumn Silvas is a Rocky Mountain native currently based in Chicago. An actress, playwright, and special effects artist, she is passionate about devised, developmental, and new ensemble-based works encouraging community engagement. She can be found @_autumnsnow_ and on Backstage.
Peanut Butter Curry
1 T. oil (coconut, vegetable, or olive)
1 T. onion powder
1 T. curry powder
1 t. turmeric
dash of ginger
2 t. salt
1 T. tomato paste
2 T. natural peanut butter
14 oz. full-fat coconut milk
1 bell pepper, sliced
1/2 head cauliflower, chopped
protein of choice (chickpeas, cubed tofu, cooked chicken, etc.)
sliced green onions
Heat oil in large high-sided pan.
Add spices and salt, and sauté until fragrant.
Add tomato paste, stirring constantly to avoid burning the spices.
Remove from heat.
Add peanut butter and coconut milk, stirring to combine.
Add vegetables and protein of choice, then return to medium heat.
Boil, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove from heat and spoon curry over rice, sprinkling with peanuts and green onions.