I was spreading peanut butter on my bagel the other morning in the Korean deli where I sometimes pick up breakfast when all of a sudden this large woman began hollering. Her hands were waving all around and I thought for a moment she was having a seizure until I realized she was merely experiencing a fervent reaction to the way I was dressing my bagel.
Is it that out of the ordinary to mix peanut butter and cream cheese? I ask because everyone in the deli was staring at me, not her.
With such a rapt audience, I calmly picked up the stainless steel spreader and slathered even more peanut butter onto my sesame seed bagel. I piled it so damn high it looked like a double decker hamburger. The white Styrofoam container could barely close around the bulging bagel. People averted their eyes.
Americans are passionate about their peanut butter. We eat about 700 million pounds per year, enough to make ten billion peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, according to the National Peanut Board in Atlanta, Georgia.
We’re also particular about our peanut butter. More than sixty percent of Americans prefer creamy style. Most men, though, opt for chunky. That’s how former President Jimmy Carter likes his nut butter. And while there are devotees of the big three – Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan – more and more are opting for natural and artisanal peanut butters, which, ironically, is how the stuff was originally produced until the advent of hydrogenation in the 1920s.
Hydrogenation is the technical term for the process that prevents the separation of oils and solids. This means peanut butter doesn’t need to be refrigerated and can have a longer, more commercially viable shelf life. That invention plus the use of peanut butter as a meat alternative for American troops during World War II led to a post-war peanut butter boom and the birth of a pop culture culinary phenom.
Southerners seem to have a special predilection for peanut butter, perhaps because that’s where peanuts are grown. Southerners use it on anything from fried chicken to coleslaw to popcorn and cornbread. Bill Clinton proclaimed his love for the peanut butter and banana sandwich, a delight made famous by Elvis Presley. George W. Bush liked a peanut butter and honey sandwich.
Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey was said to like peanut butter, baloney, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and mayonnaise on toasted bread, with ketchup on the side. No wonder he was never elected president…
Today, bacon, figs, and peaches are popular accompaniments to peanut butter sandwiches in some nouveau Southern restaurants. Peanuts and peanut butter are even showing up in cocktails.
In fact, I read recently in Garden & Gun Magazine about a gastropub called Ollie Irene in Birmingham, Alabama, that’s tarting up that Southern classic bourbon and coke by adding a peanut orgeaut. A gastropub in Alabama? Peanut orgeat? This I had to try.
Peanut orgeat is a highfalutin name for simple syrup made with peanuts and orange flower water. To make it you start by shelling two cups of roasted unsalted peanuts and then pulverizing them in a food processor. On the stove, combine 1.5 cups of sugar and 1.25 cups of water and simmer until the sugar dissolves. Then boil for three minutes. Add the peanuts, reduce the heat and slowly bring back up to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and let sit for at least six hours.
The next step with the orgeat is to strain the mixture through cheesecloth to remove the peanut solids. To the thick muddy liquid add one ounce of vodka or brandy and a teaspoon of orange flower water. My advice here would be to just add a shot of Cointreau instead and a little dab of peanut butter to amp up the flavor. Stir. Presto, orgeat. It will keep up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
To prepare the cocktail, simply add two shots of Jack Daniels, one shot of the peanut orgeat, ice, and fill with Coca-Cola. Garnish with a roasted peanut.
The folks at Ollie Irene call their concoction a “Tallulah.” My drinking companions and I called it “Type Two” because we swear we could feel our pancreases working overtime to process all the sugar. It was surprisingly tasty, though a tad pretentious for my taste and probably best suited for a brunch with mixed company.
About that six-hour prep time…well, no cocktail should take that long to prepare. And that my friends is strange behavior worth hollering about.
When Big Rob approaches to take our drink order, I’m immediately smitten. The last time I saw anyone sporting a kilt and a pair of topsiders with such panache was at a sorority party back in Charlottesville, Virginia, circa 1983. Of course, the coeds weren’t shirtless or model handsome like Big Rob. And I wasn’t the least bit tempted to sneak a peek beneath their tartans.
One of Rehoboth’s great summer pleasures is sipping a cocktail outside on the deck at Aqua Bar and Grill on Baltimore Avenue. I don’t know why, but a gin and tonic just tastes better when served by an attractive, half-dressed waiter. Tonight, the cocktail boys are in kilts. Last Sunday they wore wrestling singlets. Before that it was dog tags, aviator sunglasses, and towels – a Top Gun fantasy.
This is Big Rob’s first season serving drinks. During the day the tall Loyola University finance major is a lifeguard with the Rehoboth Beach Patrol. In fact, that’s how he found out about this gig. It’s no secret that lifeguards have often worked at Aqua throughout the years. The tips are good.
I ask if he gets a lot of propositions. Just once this entire summer, he says, laughing it off. Most of the patrons are very respectful when they find out he’s straight. He admits it took him awhile to get used to all the attention, but now he’s having a good time. He’s even comfortable rocking the deck clad only in a Speedo – his words, not mine.
The competition among the waiters on the deck is fierce, the free market in action. So, with a wink and a grin our perfect gentleman is off to attend to some other thirsty customers, moving through the crowd with the smooth efficiency of a freestyle swimmer. Did I mention he’s co-captain of his university swim team?
I’m admittedly a bit disappointed by the lack of shenanigans Big Rob has revealed tonight. But, I suppose that’s to be expected, given that all the Aqua cocktail boys are straight as an arrow this season. Bar owner Bill Shields also tends to run a tight ship.
‘Tis a far cry from the 70s in Atlantic City, laments one of my drinking companions, who just happened to work as a cocktail boy at the Hotel DeVille bar when he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. Of course, that was back when Atlantic City was a major gay hotspot – more so than Rehoboth – before the gambling casinos came in and displaced all the gay bars and hotels.
Now we’re getting’ somewhere…
Unlike at Aqua, the cocktail boys in Atlantic City were full-fledged homos. Instead of lifeguarding, they frolicked on the beach in white speedos, slathering themselves with baby oil and iodine to get that perfect tan and to also hustle up tips at the bars where they worked at night in denim cut-offs and tank tops. Everyone had a moustache.
And they were most definitely propositioned. A lot. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to receive roses or even a giant bottle of Paco Rabanne cologne in addition to hefty tips from a smitten admirer. The French Canadian men were particularly romantic.
Our Ivy Leaguer tells of being talked into posing for nude photos, one of which later ended up in After Dark magazine. The proposition he remembers most fondly, though, came from the bawdy talking puppet known as Madame, a creation and alter ego of entertainer Wayland Flowers who used to haul her around with him to gay clubs. Wayland and Madame appeared on a variety of television shows back in the 60s and 70s before hitting it big with a Las Vegas gig and then a late night television program of their own.
I’m about to learn how wide Madame’s jaw could unhinge when Big Rob returns with another round of drinks. Inspired by the stories of Atlantic City and emboldened by the gin, I ask if he’d mind answering a personal question, one I know is on the mind of every red-blooded man in the bar tonight.
“Go for it,” he says.
“How’d you get the white spot on your chest?”
“From a burn,” he explains. “A buddy laid a quarter on me while I was sleeping on the beach.”
Imperfection is beauty and I tell him so.
When Big Rob departs, one of my drinking companions punches me in the arm. It’s not the question he wanted answered, but, hey, I’ve got some integrity. And besides, I tell him, if you want to know the answer, simply shake his hand. And don’t forget to tip.
Author’s note. Last night was Rob’s last night at Aqua. He really liked the story and said the tips definitely improved after it ran in LETTERS. He’s definitely returning next year to lifeguard and to serve drinks.