Arguing Over Nothing

The Peanut Butter and Jelly Debate

Arguing Over Nothing: A regular feature on the blog where we argue over something of little consequence, as if it were of major consequence. Arguing is philosophy’s raison d’être, and the beauty of an argument is often as much in its form as its content.

Today, we argue about the proper way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Jim argues for a radical, new approach, while I side with a more standard approach to the endeavor.

Each philosopher is granted up to a 500-750 words to state his/her case as well as up to 250-500 words for rebuttal. The winner will be decided by a poll of the readers (or whoever happens to have admin privileges at the appropriate time).

Jim: Arguing for the bowl method

The purpose of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the purpose of any sandwich, I suppose, is to provide a quick bit of sustenance. There are ‘sandwich artists’ in the world, but I have trouble imagining such people working in the medium of peanut butter and jelly. Therefore, the sooner the sandwich is made, the sooner its purpose can be met. Were one to take the time to, after opening two jars and securing two utensils (surely we can both agree that cross-contamination of the ingredients should not occur within the jars), much time has already been lost and invested. From that point, mixing the two ingredients in bowl is the best and most efficient way of creating the sandwich. This is so for, primarily, two reasons.

First, peanut butter, even the creamiest sort, is not so easily spread on bread. I will grant that toasted bread provides a more durable spreading surface, but, again, the sandwich is made for a quick repast so that toasting is often overlooked or bypassed. Inevitably, large divots are raised or even removed from the bread by even the most experienced spreader. Once that has been accomplished, if it were accomplished at all, the jelly must be attended to. Securing jelly from jar with a spreading knife is a feat best left to the young and others with plenty of idle time on their hands. Repeated stabbings into the jar will secure, at best, scant amounts of jelly. It is, obviously, better to use a spoon. However, as is clear to even the dullest imagination, spreading with a spoon leaves much to be desired, literally, as the result tends to be scattered hillocks of jelly, between which are faint traces, like glacial retreatings, of ‘jelly flavor’. Were one to use a spoon for jelly retrieval and a knife for jelly spreading, that is yet another utensil to clean.

The second reason against separate spreads, and so for one bowl of mixed, is corollary to the above. When one makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, one is looking to taste both in, maximally, each bite. Given the condition of the bread on the peanut butter side and the pockets of flavor intersticed with the lack thereof on the jelly side, one is lucky to get both flavors in half the bites taken.

By mixing both peanut butter and jelly in a bowl prior to application, both of the concerns above are fully redressed. The peanut butter, by virtue of its mixing with jelly, becomes much more spreadable for two reasons: it is no longer as thick and it is no longer as dry. A thin and moist substance is always much easier to spread. Furthermore, because of the aforementioned mixing, both flavors will be available in every bite taken. The end result is a much more delicious, easily made (and so efficient), quick meal. As an added bonus, one’s fingers end up with less mess since only one slice of bread has needed attending to and so one’s fingers are only up for mess-exposure for the one time and not twice as with the other method.

While there is the bowl left to clean, in addition to the utensils, what has not been removed from the bowl is easily rinsed. The peanut butter-jelly mix, given its thin and moist nature is almost always able to be fully removed from the bowl and transferred to the bread. What is not so transferred, whether by design or not, is, by the the previously mentioned nature, easily washed or wiped away in disposal.

The bowl is clearly the way to go when making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Alec: Arguing Against the Bowl Method

I will grant your utilitarian premise on sandwich making (“the purpose of any sandwich, I suppose, is to provide a quick bit of sustenance”), though I will point out that aesthetics could have a valid role to play in this debate. If your PB&J-from-a-bowl sandwich is singularly visually unappetizing (as I imagine it might be) then it will not provide any sustenance whatsoever, but will end up in the trash can instead. Also, note that your utilitarianism here could lead to the creation of a “sandwich” that is made by tossing the ingredients in a blender and creating a PB&J smoothie the likes of which would be eschewed by any rational hungry person.

But I digress.

You claim that peanut butter — even the creamy variety — is difficult to spread on bread. I have two points to make in regards to this claim. First, I haven’t had difficulty spreading peanut butter on bread since I was 12. Perhaps you should have your motor skills tested by a trained kinesiologist. I grant you that spreading a chunky peanut butter on a thin, wispy white bread can be problematic; but a smooth peanut butter on a hearty wheat bread? Not problematic at all. Second, you have pointed to no scientific research that shows that mixing peanut butter and jelly in a bowl makes it easier to spread than plain peanut butter. I remain skeptical on this point. And even if it is easier to spread, the labor involved in mixing it with jelly in a separate bowl might be far more work than it is worth in the end.

The knife/jelly problem is a thorny one, indeed, as you have noted. Trying to extricate an ample amount of jelly from a jar with a knife is difficult and annoying. You claim that: “Were one to use a spoon for jelly retrieval and a knife for jelly spreading, that is yet another utensil to clean.” However, you have overlooked the obvious: one can use the knife from the peanut butter to spread the jelly that has been extricated with the spoon. Here is some simple math to show how utensil use plays out in both of our scenarios:

You: 1 knife for dishing peanut butter + 1 spoon for dishing jelly + 1 bowl for mixing.

Me: 1 knife for dishing and spreading peanut butter + 1 spoon for dishing jelly, and reuse the knife for spreading jelly.

So we are equal on our utensil use, and you have used an extra bowl.

And on the subject of this extra bowl, it will be readily admitted by all that a knife with peanut butter on it is annoying enough to clean, while an entire bowl with peanut butter on it is proportionately more annoying to clean. (Again, you claim that a peanut butter / jelly mixture is easier to clean than pure peanut butter, but the research on this is missing. Surely you will allow that a bowl with some peanut butter on it is not a simply rinsed affair.) Plus there’s the environmental impact of cleaning an extra bowl each time you make a sandwich. Add that over the millions of people who make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches each day, and you’ve got a genuine environmental issue.

Creating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich my way also leads to an easier-to-clean knife. After spreading the peanut butter on one slice of bread, you can wipe the knife on the other slice of bread to remove upwards of 90% of the residual peanut butter (Cf. “Peanut Butter Residue in Sandwich Making,” Journal of Viscous Foods 94, 2008, pp. 218-227.) This makes cleanup far easier than in your scenario, and results in potential environmental savings as well.

You do make two solid points. First, your PB&J mixture is potentially much more homogenous than the usual sandwich mixture, resulting in a more equitable PB-to-J ratio per bite. Here I can only revisit my aesthetic claim that eating a standard PB&J sandwich is more appealing than the greyish mixture you propose we slather on bread. Second, your sandwich creation process is indeed potentially less messy on the fingers than mine. To this I have no defense. Into each good life some jelly must fall.

Jim: Rebuttal

I must say, I find many of your points and counterpoints intriguing. All wrong, of course, but still intriguing. Let’s go through them, one at a time, and see where you go astray.

1) I grant both the utilitarian and aesthetic aspects to the sandwich. There are some truly beautiful sandwiches out there; few of them, however, are made at home and are made solely of bread, peanut butter, and jelly. The maker of such a sandwich is often working in a limited environment with a limited medium with a time crunch, otherwise, utility be damned and let the sandwich artist sing. As for the smoothie sandwich, I doubt, as surely so do you, that the sole goal of the creator (of the sandwich) is to ingest those ingredients as soon as possible. Ignoring a lack of teeth or the presence of an extremely tight throat, such an option is insane.

2) While I appreciate a gentle jibe as much as the next fellow, to imply that I lack the wrist strength to apply peanut butter to bread is going a bit far. Ad hominem attacks should have no place in philosophical discourse. It is not impossible to spread peanut butter on bread and I will happily grant you the point that it is so much easier to do so on ‘hearty wheat bread’. My point was and is that it is easier to do so if, to use a turn of phrase, the wheels have been greased a bit, and it is my contention that a peanut butter and jelly mixture does just that. However, you are correct that I have no scientific data to back that up. I was under the impression that science need not enter civil discussion, but I will agree that I have no data to back that claim up. Common sense, mere intuition, though, seems to suggest that if jelly is easier to spread than peanut butter, and who would contest that, then surely a mixture of peanut butter and jelly would be easier to spread than peanut butter simpliciter.

3) I fear I only have enough space left to deal with your point concerning the extra cleaning of a bowl. I did take a bit of latitude with that argument and will concede it to you with but one addendum. In almost every home, at the very least in a great many homes, I would guess that the dishes are not washed one at a time, but rather several at once, and rarely immediately after use. If the utilitarian nature of the PB&J sandwich is granted, time is at a minimum and I suspect clean-up will have to wait a more opportune time. While an extra bowl is required during the creation of the sandwich, I do not think that an extra bowl needing to be washed would extend such washing time unduly.