Except for the darkest days of winter when hot-house tomatoes are pink, tough, and tasteless, I’m as likely as not to start the day with this favorite breakfast, along with a tall cup of coffee to wash it down – and the riper the tomato, the thicker the slice.
I have a toaster tucked in a nook in my office so I can enjoy a peanut butter and tomato breakfast at my desk as the day begins. My coworkers have grown accustomed to observing this peculiar ritual. Their comments range from a polite, “That’s interesting” to “Oh gross, how can you eat that?” The answer to this question dates all the way back to the summer of 1964.
My Stepdad was a quiet man. As we drove to the bus station that Saturday afternoon, he was even quieter than usual. It was July 18. I had graduated from Mt. Vernon Academy the month before, and my sister, Kathy, had just married Don, the love of her life. Their wedding reception was underway when Dad and I slipped out and headed for the Greyhound bus station at the corner of Mulberry and High just off the town square.
I guess you could say our parting was a bit of a Norman Rockwell moment. We exchanged smiles, but without tears, then Dad gave me a hug and told me to be careful.
I picked up my suitcase, which contained my entire earthly possessions – a few changes of clothes – and boarded the bus. I was headed to Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland. I had a ten dollar bill folded up in my pocket, but that was the extent of my planning for college. Actually, the high school guidance counselor had advised me to join the army or to attend a vocational school, but that is a story for another time.
My older brother, Doug, was taking summer classes and had arranged for me to stay temporarily with two college friends of his in a little house they rented off campus. Jake Moses and Farook Sait were from India. I soon learned that they were two special guys, and I was grateful that they were willing to take me in. My brother was sleeping on their couch for the summer, so my bed was a straw mat with a sheet and a cushion on the living room floor.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long to find a job. A note on the bulletin board in the men’s dorm read, “Handyman wanted for yard work and home repairs.” I called the number and with very little inquiry about my skills, I was asked to show up the next day at 8 a.m. It was the better part of five miles to the older home in Northwest Washington, DC where I would work for the next eight weeks.
My new employer was an anthropologist for the Smithsonian Institute. She had just returned from an assignment in Africa to care for her Mom and Dad, both of whom were well up in their 80s. Every day for the next eight weeks her Mom would wander from room to room shouting. “Who is that man?” and her Dad, who was crippled over and extremely hard of hearing, would shout back, “I told you, Margaret hired him to do some work for us.”
And work I did, performing jobs I never imagined I could do, like running a big floor sander on the front porch, stripping and waxing wood floors, removing wallpaper and painting nearly every room in the house, and restringing all of the venetian blinds, plus the yard work. I worked hard and Margaret paid me well. She even provided my lunch each day.
A week after I started Margaret realized I was walking almost an hour and a half to and from her house each day so she offered to let me ride her old bicycle, if it could be repaired. It was a girl’s Schwinn that looked to be at least 15 years old, and remember this was 1964. It had been in the garage for years so there was very little rust, but it definitely needed new tires and a good greasing. This was an expense I gladly incurred, but then to my delight Margaret reimbursed me for the entire bill.
I was so tired every night that I slept like a baby on Farook and Jake’s living room floor. Just before my handyman job ended I was able to land a job as a janitor at a hospital near the college, which was enough to convince the college admissions department to make an exception and let me move into the dorm, even though I wouldn’t have enough money saved to start classes until the winter semester.
I learned a lot that summer, including the fact that peanut butter with tomato on toast is an inexpensive but nutritious breakfast, one which I enjoyed every morning, and sometimes for supper as well. After I moved into the dorm I began chowing down on cafeteria food, but after all these years I still haven’t lost my taste for peanut butter with tomato on toast, and I hope I never do, nor the life lessons I learned that summer.
I know I’m not the first person to discover this uncommon combination. My bet is that George Washington Carver came up with the idea while walking in his tomato patch one morning. Today you can find “PB&TT” recipes online. There is even a “peanut butter and tomato toast” Facebook page, but all of the recipes are pretty much the same. Toast one slice of your favorite bread, spread with peanut butter, top with a juicy slice of tomato, add salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy!
George Brown is the executive director of Clermont Senior Services.