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To Honor Mom, Artist Will Stop at Nothing to Make Thousands of PB&J Sandwiches

Over five days, Jessica Olah is making 2,340 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as an "exercise in empathy" with her mother, who prepared her daughter a bag lunch every day until she went to college.

by Lauren Oyler
Jan 28 2016, 10:05pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Brooklyn-based artist (and Broadly illustrator) Jessica Olah is currently engaged in a delicious piece of durational performance art. Called "2,340 Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwiches," the work consists of Olah preparing the aforementioned quantity of PB&Js over the course of five days at the 12C Outdoor Art Gallery on Avenue C in Manhattan, as "an exercise in empathy" with her mother.

It's been a long time since the world saw feminist-adjacent large-batch sandwich news; although unforgettable, it was way back in 2013 when a woman vowed (on her lifestyle blog) to make her boyfriend 300 sandwiches so that he would propose to her. Olah's project is decidedly more female-focused, ambitious, and charitable. The piece is both a meditation on motherhood and a tribute to Olah's own mother, who made what Olah estimates were 2,340 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Olah's school lunches from ages 5 to 18. "I will explore what it was like for my mother to give her time, energy, and love to make a bag lunch 180 days per year for 13 years," Olah writes of the project, which was funded by an Indiegogo campaign, on her website. "There is often a repetitive nature to the tasks that a mother performs during the early years of her children's lives, and a lack of value given to the person doing them."

Instead of giving the sandwiches to a rapidly engorging love interest, Olah is donating them, each day at lunch- and dinnertime, to the Bowery Mission. Although her mother lives in California, she will be in New York in time to see the project's grand finale this Sunday, when Olah will make her 2,340th sandwich and hopefully go somewhere fancy for dinner. We made her take a break from today's sandwich shift to talk about the project.

BROADLY: Where did the idea for "2,340 PB&J Sandwiches" come from?
Jessica Olah: The idea came from a conversation at my office job. I was talking with a coworker about how my mom made me school lunches, and I was asking if his mom did. We all get our lunches delivered, and it feels a little like, well, like someone's bringing you your lunch. His mom hadn't made him lunch everyday, and I realized how special it is that a mom would choose to do that. Then I started thinking, Wow, how many days is that? I couldn't comprehend it, because I only ate peanut butter and jelly the entire time I was growing up.

How much peanut butter and jelly did you have to buy beforehand? How did you plan it?
I figured out how many servings were in each jar of peanut butter, how much you need for each sandwich, how many slices of bread approximately are in each bag. We're kind of playing it by ear; I precalculated all of that and ordered it, but we're having to adjust numbers as we go. The peanut butter was donated, so that was huge, and then the jelly was from a local jam maker, who gave me ten gallons of jelly, which should be enough. I figured out that there are about 16 slices per bag of bread. I'm getting 59 loaves per day.

Read More: Mothers and Models Are Equally Awkward and Beautiful

What kind of bread and what kind of peanut butter?
The bread is from Hot Bread Kitchen, and it's a multi-grain loaf. I wanted to go with them because they are very involved with the community; they employ lower-income immigrants to teach them the bread business, and then the money goes back to the community, which is Harlem. The peanut butter is from Once Again, and it's organic.

How many sandwiches are you producing per day?
Yesterday was the first day, and I think I got off to a slow start. It was about 350, so I have a lot to go. I was originally going to be [at the gallery] until about six, but it seems like I'll have to stay a little later every night and get here a little earlier to get it done.

Do you worry you won't finish in time?
I'm sure I can get it done. I know how to stay up late.

A snapshot of Olah's progress

What has the audience reaction been like?
It's interesting—some people have stayed and sat and later told me how it impacted them. This place, 12C Outdoor Gallery, is located next to a school, and some parents brought their kids in the evening. A lot of parents were like, "Yep! My kid likes PB&J and nothing else, too!"

Are you sore? What kind of muscles are you using?
Mostly my arm and my shoulder are sore. I'm sitting down, but I get up to get the jelly and the bread and all that. It's hard, actually, just sitting still.

What are you thinking about while you're making the sandwiches?
I'm spending a lot of time thinking about what day it was, corresponding [the sandwiches] to kindergarten, first grade, second grade. And about the idea of being a mother. I was having thoughts yesterday about how I felt a little bit chained to this as a piece, that I needed to see through to completion. The relationship between that and motherhood—it's hard to take care of your own needs a lot of the time [as a mother]. I'm doing this and I'm like, "I don't know if I have time to go to the bathroom!"

Are you snacking?
I had one at the end of the day yesterday. Is that cheating?

"2,340 PB&J Sandwiches" is on view at 12C Outdoor Art Gallery on Avenue C in Manhattan from 10 AM–6 PM from today until Saturday, January 30, and on from 12 PM–6 PM on Sunday, January 31.