The History Dish: Peanut and Cottage Cheese Sandwiches

Peanut Butter and Cottage Cheese: a non-threatening sandwich.

On Fridays and Saturdays, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum runs a fantastic tour: Foods of the Lower East Side.  It’s an exploration of immigration history through taste and flavor.

I am one of the many guides for this tour;  my favorite part is when I get to show visitors this school lunch menu from c. 1920:

Source: 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, by Jane Ziegelman.

So what do you think of this menu?  How would you describe it?  What stands out to you?  In comparison, what do you remember eating at lunch in school, or what are you children’s favorite school lunch meals today?

The school lunch program started in schools in the Lower East Side.  At its inception, the program had two purposes.  Primarily, the school board wanted to provide children a healthy, balanced meal for a few cents.  Up until the lunch program was initiated, children were given money by their parents to buy their own lunch from the shops and pushcarts on the Lower East Side.  If you were a kid with money to burn, what would you buy? Candy.

However, critics believed the school lunch was designed to Americanize the children of immigrants  The thought was if we Americanize the dinner table, we’ll Americanize the immigrant.  The kids will like the “American” lunches and start asking for the same foods at home.

When I present this menu on my tour, the menu item that visitors comment on the most is Tuesday’s “Peanut and Cottage Cheese Sandwich.”  It strikes guests as so bizarre, particularly on a menu that’s supposed to be American.  So I promised everyone that I would give it a try.

I checked my early 20th century cookbooks for “peanut and cottage cheese sandwiches” without any luck.  I couldn’t decide if it was chopped peanuts, or peanut butter, mixed with the cottage cheese.  And then I found this:

This recipe comes from Money Saving Main Dishes published in 1948 by the Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics. T his recipe was taste-tested on the adorable blog The Mid-Century Menu.  You can read her full pickle-peanut butter post here.

I figured this mid-century recipe would be a good guide for me, so I mixed it up, sans pickles.  I mashed together peanut butter and cottage cheese,  spread it over bread,  and fried it like a grilled cheese.  The result? A warm peanut butter sandwich.  It didn’t taste like much of anything, not even peanut butter. Even the texture was unassuming: cottage cheese doesn’t melt, so it didn’t add anything.  The sandwich was Beige Food, going into my mouth, giving me calories. Non-threatening and neutral.

I know there was some concern at the turn of the century that spicy, highly flavored food prevented proper assimilation to American culture.  I’m not sure if that was widely believed, or a theory presented by a loud-mouthed few.  I certainly don’t feel more American after eating that sandwich.


16 Responses to “The History Dish: Peanut and Cottage Cheese Sandwiches”

  • Great post!!! I”m a peanut butter lover but this…..yuck

  • That sounds like a leftover from World War I-era rationing. There were some fascinating recipes published by home economists suggesting substitutes for meat and wheat. In a 1918 book called “Liberty Recipes” there’s a recipe for “Cottage cheese sausage” made with cottage cheese, bread crumbs, chopped peanuts, and peanut butter. Delicious, I’m sure. If you want to try that one, it’s on Google Books as the second half of a scanned volume:

  • Hmmm…have to give that a try. It’s sort of like a “vegan” sausage.

  • The luch looks… not terrible. I wouldn’t mind eating this (except Monday-stewed corn, even with stewed prunes (ick) seems like not much lunch). I find it interesting that most of thins looks vegetarian (depending on what is in the soup stock), and I wonder if that is a cost measure, or a simple way to make sure that even the kids who keep kosher can eat the lunch provided.

    • Both, but I think more of the latter. I was told that the first schools in New York to have the lunch program were all on Broome street, the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side at the turn of the century. It would make sense that to avoid the whole kosher issue, they kept it veg. School were the students keep kosher do they same thing today; I had a field trip that came to the Tenement museum once from an orthodox school that was so excited they went to a local Kosher deli and got a meat meal for lunch.

      But notice they do serve fish on fridays!

  • love it! you have such an engaging writing style. and i really hear your voice!

  • I love The Lower East Side Tenement Museum! I visited there 10 years ago. It good to see they are still doing well. The foods tour sounds awesome. I wish I could come up and check it out, but thanks for posting this!

  • Now you know why the pickle was added…

  • The pickle is delicious! Add it. Further, it’s juice makes the PB less tacky, and adds texture. I omit buying “dip” for chips and instead use cottage cheese (my favorite) how can I not go wrong now with a PB, pickle and cottage cheese sandwich? Oh.. add bacon and the chips. WOW!! (I’m not kosher). :-)

  • You need to add a couple slices of bacon to the peanut butter and cottage cheese sandwich. I have been eating them since the 60’s.

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