Last week I relived my youth on a small sand bar near a bend in the Chatooga River, just upwater from a treacherous series of class-five rapids.
That might seem like a strange place for a South Mississippi boy to have a childhood flashback. The body of water that ran through the neighborhood of my youth – Gordon’s Creek – could never compare to the cool, clear, rushing water of the Chatooga. There were no steep cliffs lined with majestic hardwoods or craggy 900-foot ravines.. My neighborhood was flat and filled with pine trees. But in that moment, on the South Carolina side of the Chatooga, I was transported to summer lunches in my childhood home.
I am a huge fan of whitewater rafting. It is an adventurous, exciting, and thrilling sport that a 52-year old man can still enjoy while simultaneously bonding with his offspring.
For my son’s 13th birthday, I took him and two of his friends to raft sections III and IV of the Chatooga River – a free-flowing, non-dam regulated body of water that has been designated by the United States government as both “Wild and Scenic.” The beauty of this designation is that rafters encounter no one, other than the few people in their group, for 13 miles of exciting and unspoiled wilderness the way God made it.
As is the practice with all-day rafting trips, sometime near the noon hour, all of the rafts in the group (usually four to six) stop at a sandbar where the guides flip over one of the rafts and make lunch.
It’s nothing fancy. The guides spread a tablecloth over the upturned raft and begin to prepare a deli-style lunch. Basically they open a few loaves of bread, and a package of flour tortillas, line a few plates with turkey, ham, roast beef, lettuce, onion and tomato, open a few condiments along with a jar of hummus, a couple of protein bars, some sliced fruit, and a container of dried fruit and let the rafters make their own lunch.
A rafting lunch seems, at first glance, to be basic and boring, but there is something about being on the water and out in the sun that makes the most basic ingredients taste wonderful. Two decades ago, on my father-in-law’s sailboat, just north of Horne Island in the Mississippi Sound, I ate a naval orange out of an ice chest that was one of the best things I had ever tasted, and as satisfying as any five-star entrée I have eaten in New York or San Francisco. To this day, it is still the best orange I have ever eaten.
The rafting guides let the ladies go first, the men are next, and the guides bring up the rear. The group is instructed to make a “moderately sized sandwich.” Once the guides have made their plate, the rafters can return for seconds.
I was at the end of the line. There were still a few deli meats and an entire loaf of rye left, but there was also a quart of untouched peanut butter sitting beside a similar container of untouched raspberry preserves. The choice was an easy one. I went for the PBJ and made one of the great peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of my life.
I guess it was the out-of-doors and water mixed with the heat – and probably the generic origin of the peanut butter and jelly, as I am sure that the rafting company buys in bulk – that took me immediately back to the summers of my youth. In those days I was up as soon as the sun rose and played outside all day until the streetlights came on. My one break was lunch when I would ride my bike home and have a PBJ and a cold glass of milk. That is my youth on a plate.
Today I make a PBJ with wheat bread, creamy peanut butter, and one of those all-fruit preserves in a jar. I typically opt for peach, but in my youth it was always grape or strawberry.
I think we overlook some of the pure joys of our youth because we think – based on some contrived social norm – that we “grow out of” eating things such as peanut butter and jelly. That’s sad.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.