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“One of the highest points in the sandwich-maker’s art.”

In late October, an article was published in the New York Times food section celebrating the peanut butter and pickle, a sandwich the author, Dwight Garner, described as an “unacknowledged American classic.” Inspired by Garner’s description of the PB&P as a cult favorite, I spent a week experimenting with different combinations of breads, dills, butters, relishes, and creamy and crunchy peanut butters. Although the pairing of peanut butter and pickle is more harmonious than you might imagine (sweet pickles work best), I never perfected a formula, and my enthusiasm ultimately waned.

The article was also the first I’d read of Ernest Hemingway’s bizarre riff on the standard. The Nobel Prize-winning author evidently ate his peanut butter sandwiches with onion, a preparation he termed the “Mount Everest Special” in his posthumously-published novel “Islands in the Stream.” An article on the blog Cold Splinters, also inspired by the New York Times piece, included this amusing passage (emphasis my own):

“Well, go down to the galley and see if that bottle of tea is cold and bring it up. Antonio’s butchering the fish, go make a sandwich will you, please?”
“Sure. What kind of sandwich?”
“Peanut butter and onion if there’s plenty of onion.”
“Peanut butter and onion it is, sir.”
He handed a sandwich, wrapped in a paper towel segment, to Thomas Hudson and said, “One of the highest points in the sandwich-maker’s art. We call it the Mount Everest Special. For Commanders only.”

I’m not a Commander, admittedly, and frankly the union of onion and peanut butter sounds truly foul. But goddammit I am a sandwich professional, I’m something of a Hemingway enthusiast, and I wanted, nigh needed to sample this Mount Everest Special. None of the articles I’d read initially offered any specific guidance in the way of ingredients or preparation, and “The Hemingway Cookbook,” published in September 2012, offers not much more: two slices white bread, two large slices onion and peanut butter, served with a glass of red wine. Still, this was not much to go on. Building the perfect Mount Everest Special would require a bit of trailblazing. Ernest would be proud.

Take One

Hemingway Take 1For attempt number one, I hoped to recreate as accurately as possible the sandwich as Hemingway might have eaten it. My prep was straightforward, and fittingly rustic: sliced raw white onion laid across creamy peanut butter between thick slices of a crusty white bread. From a texture standpoint, the toughness of the bread masked to some extent the crunch of the raw onion, and the overall starchiness of the sandwich had me scrambling for a glass of milk. Surprisingly, however, the nuttiness of the spread worked well with the cutting sharpness of the onion. And although I was also surprised at first by the onion’s subtlety, no sooner than I could take a second bite did a ferociously pungent onion funk of begin to take root in the depths of my mouth. By the fifth or sixth bite, a hot stench was wafting up the back of my throat and through my nose. Mornings later, traces of onion breath persisted. The sandwich was ultimately palatable, but to describe this preparation as an acquired taste would be charitable.

Take Two

Hemingway Take 2Although my second stab at the Mount Everest Special strayed somewhat from what is known of  Hemingway’s preferred preparation, I hoped the adjustments would correct some of the flaws in the first go-round. For a more consistent bite, I opted for roughly-chopped red onions with the same creamy peanut butter on slices of traditional wheat sandwich bread. Whereas the first version suffered slightly from an abundance of texture, the significantly less substantial wheat bread and creamy peanut butter here offered little resistance to the spicy snap of the onion. Red onions being significantly more potent than the whites used in the first version, the more even distribution did virtually nothing to mitigate the horrific, two-day stink breath that Garner wrote could “chase away children, pets and all women who aren’t Martha Gellhorn.”

Take Three

Hemingway Take 3Clearly, creating a peanut butter and onion sandwich with anything approaching broad appeal was going to require drastic measures. For the third and final iteration, I made the difficult decision to abandon any faithfulness to Hemingway’s sandwich and employ some technique. Step one was to caramelize a mix of white and red onions. EHemingway Take 3rnest liked his onions like he liked his prose—raw and uncompromising—and thus this sweetening and softening of the main component represented a fundamental, if clearly necessary departure from the traditional preparation. After heaping the onion mix onto a soft Italian roll slathered with creamy peanut butter, I tossed the whole bit onto my brand-new Cuisinart Griddler sandwich press. A few minutes later, the sandwich came out hot and crunchy, the sweet onions, runny peanut butter and crisped bread combining to create a bite vaguely reminiscent of a perfectly prepared onion ring. It was far and away the most satisfying of the three versions tested, with not a hint of the radioactive monster breath caused by the others. That it bears the least resemblance to Hemingway’s Mount Everest Special is regretful, but modern palettes aren’t suited for mouthfuls of raw onion. I’m not sure palettes ever were.

Ultimately, I consider these experiments time well spent. Granted, even the most successful of these three sandwiches is still probably not everyone’s cup of tea. But it is critical in our exploration of the sandwich in all its forms, as it is in any exploration, that we step outside comfort zones. Don’t be satisfied with the familiar. Seek out the unusual and embrace it. Every now and then, enjoy an onion sandwich. Life’s an adventure.

January 16, 2013


I read the NYTimes article as well… and was also intrigued. I used a simple yellow onion on a rustic style organic wheat bread- I found MORE peanut butter the better (the crunchy/ natural/ healthy kind) which somehow balanced out and absorbed the noxious cloud of onion fumes… no tears but you can feel it go down. I’ll probably try this again – when the fridge is nearly empty and the market is closed… (also reminded me of a Gibson martini… may try salt when ever the next time comes…)

Sweet vidalia onion, very thinly sliced, that’s the key! I’m eating said sandwhich right now…and it’s delectable!

Grille some thick spring onions to a good but not sooty char; drizzle with walnut or olive oil, season, and wrap in foil to steam for 15 minutes. A couple slices of quality bread, spread with PB on each; a wee bit of pinch of red chile flakes; then make the sandwich, nestling the onions in between.

Now that’s good. And will get you laid. Or not, but it’s still damned good.

Also, I concur re the vidalia onion. Raw, sliced thin, that works too.

Pickle the onions first in a mix of rice and cider vinegar, soy, fish sauce, salt, dried bird chillis, garlic and anise. I always keep these on hand any way, and with creamy peanut butter, it’s one of the best things you’ll ever eat.

You got it all wrong on all accounts, my friend! You obviously weren’t raised in the south. I grew up eating the fabulous pb&o and here is the recipe:
2 slices of white bread
On one slice of bread you spread a very thin layer of mayonnaise
On the other slice you slather on a good bit of peanut butter
You then thinly slice sweet Vidalia onions and place them on the pb in a thin layer
Add a very modest dusting of black pepper (optional)
Slap the 2 halves together and experience palatable bliss!

Ya’ll are a bunch of wimps, which Hemingway decidedly was not. Then again, I had an uncle who used to peal and eat onions like apples, and I like ’em too.

You actually did the way eh did. Congratulations, now that bit about the onion rings should be kept confidential. Vegans worldwide will alter the natural scheme if this gets out

I grew up with peanut and onion sandwiches – best bread RYE. Second choice on bread a standup wheat. Nothing else is needed, just 3/16ths thick regular yellow onion slices and peanut butter. I switched to Crunchy PB as an adult, and now live where getting good rye bread is difficult. I have yet to get my hubby of 30+ years to even try PB&O sandwiches. However, he eats Peanut Butter and Cheese (sharp cheddar) sandwiches which I consider a waste of good bread, good cheese and good crunchy PB!

I suspect that PB&O sandwiches may have been the result of either poverty or the depression. I know sugar was rationed in WWII, so no jelly. In my family the PB&O’s predated the war – but aunts, uncles, and grandmother (all maternal) could not remember the source of the idea/recipe! My mother was the source of the switch to RYE bread – so that was the way I grew up with them! I am almost 70 years old, from the Midwest, currently living in remote east Tennessee.

Interesting! I never would have thought to try rye bread, and your theory on the historical origin of the sandwich sounds plausible to me. I grew up in the Midwest, too, but never heard of this sandwich before the past couple years.

I’m sorry but someone has to bring up that squeamishness about raw onion disqualifies you from being any kind of authority on sandwiches.

Haha, I wouldn’t call it squeamishness exactly, but it’s true that I don’t really consider raw onion to be a viable featured ingredient. It’s best as a complementary item, in my opinion. To be fair, though, I’ve never claimed to be an authority on sandwiches. Just a fan.

When I was a kid, I saw an episode of a cartoon called “Mighty Max” where a favorite snack of a vaguely eastern-european country was a PB&O sandwich.

Eager to see if such a thing was possible, my 12 year old self decided on yellow onions, crunchy JIF, and buttermilk bread with a slight drizzle of honey on the thinly sliced onions.

I became enamored of them for months, and my breath did indeed drive off small children, cats, a parrot, and a dog, so I had to give them up.

I just tried the Mount Everest Special. My version ingredients: wheat bread, crunchy and creamy peanut butter {each kind for each slide of bread} and thick sliced red onion rings. It was surprisingly good! Sweet, crunchy, smooth, strong. All the flavours played nicely and now I have a new snack. Thank you Ernest and happy birthday.

I tried this sandwhich for the first time as a kid after watching Fred Savage and Howie Mandell in “Little Monsters”. I was an instant fan. I’ve been enjoying them off and on again for over 20 years. And before you ask, yes I am married. And no, she has yet to leave me because of the subsequent dragon breath. Heck, even the dogs have stuck around. Like everything, it’s a matter of personal taste. I enjoy mine with thinly sliced sweet Vidalia onions, Jiff super chunck on one side, a light spread of butter (not margarine) on the other, and good ol’ fashioned white bread. Best with a tall glass of ice cold milk. I will have to try it with mayo next…so long as it’s not miracle whip. YUCK!!!

Peanut butter, when mixed with other sandwich ingredients, if a fairly good substitute for meat. My Grandmother turned me on to simple PB&O sandwiches in the 1950’s.. I changed the recipe later on. My fav is toasted 12 grain, or Rye, a little Mayo, a touch of Horseradish, thin Sweet Onion slices, a sprinkling of vinegar and oil type dressing or Sub dressing, some Paprika, Garlic and Onion Powder and thin shredded Napa Cabbage. I use lots of real, organic, creamy PB, Serve with home fries or chips and a cold “quality” Lager.

Ate this during a very poor stretch in College days:

Peanut Butter, mayo and onion sandwich.

Pretty simple and good. It’s better with milder onions like mentioned here.

We did not know that this was a EW thing, it was just what we had left after we ate everything else in the kitchen.

My version – smooth peanut butter, raw yellow onion, mayo, habanero hot sauce, on sour dough toast. It was awesome. Will definitely be having this again.

I propose that if Hemingway called it a “Mount Everest Special” (not exactly an easy hill to climb) and he said it was “for commanders only” that he probably was not using thinly sliced, caramelized, sweet onions. This sandwich is meant to be mountainous and BOLD!

My recipe that I have been eating for about 40 years…
Two slices of thick white bread (I have also used rye and love it), two Thick slices of white onion, a lot of creamy peanut butter (spread about 3/8 of an inch thick!), and a light drizzle of yellow mustard (for a twist try dijon).

First, I suppose you have to enjoy raw onion and know how to choose the sweeter onion….the flatter the onion (not a round globe), the sweeter it is.

Second, I have been eating my peanut butter with pieces of raw onion or with slices of cucumber since I was a child. Especially good on toast. For a sandwich, I know you’re going to cringe, but my childhood friends and I loved peanut butter and mustard with onion.

I’m seeing some interesting combos in the comments that I’ll have to try.

Never PB & banana sandwich! The two soft, sweet textures are better suited for a pie…with chocolate.