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.
For 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.
Although 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.”
Clearly, 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. Ernest 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.