The Putney Special: A Quick Hot Lunch

By Sandy Ward

October 24, 2006

Hungry, tired, and frustrated by the lack of choices in my nearly-empty refrigerator, I began rummaging through the cans on the pantry shelf, seeking a good soup to heat for this cold grey day. All morning I had been puttering around the house in sweatshirt and sweatpants, doing miscellaneous projects. It was already 1:30pm, long past the time I should have stopped for lunch. So I was rather grumpy and impatient for food.

A can of stewed tomatoes caught my eye. An idea flashed into my mind, and with it a cascade of images and memories. Yes! I could make myself a hot nutritious lunch just as my mother used to do. Did I have the other necessary ingredients? Yes! Yes! Toast, peanut-butter and stewed tomatoes. My busy practical mother justified this odd combination as a balanced, nutritious meal that could be made quickly from basic ingredients almost always on hand. So simple to make:

  1. Open a can of stewed tomatoes, heat contents in a saucepan
  2. Put bread slices in toaster
  3. Spread peanut-butter on the toast
  4. Pour hot stewed tomatoes over all

As a child, I wasn't fond of fresh tomatoes, but I did like this meal of stewed tomatoes poured over peanut-butter on toast. For me, it wasn't odd. I accepted this as a routine and tasty lunch. The recipe didn't have, or need, a name.

But today, the name is what first came into my mind: The Putney Special. I learned that name at age 16. I always laugh as I recall encountering this same food in a different context: the dining room of the Putney School, an expensive private boarding school in Vermont. I was a new student in the 11th grade. When serving bowls of stewed tomatoes were placed on the table, the students near me reacted with disgust, “Oh, no! Not the Putney Special! Not again!” Students complained about this strange combination that the school liked to serve: toast, peanut-butter, and stewed tomatoes. They thought it was awful, but I ate it happily. When I remarked that I liked it and that we ate it at home, other students looked at me with shocked expressions, as if to say, How could your mother serve such a thing?

I did eventually ask my mother where she learned to put those ingredients together. To my surprise, she answered, “Putney.” In the late 1930's she had worked as a camp counselor at the Putney Summer Work Camp; the chef there had served this food, and she liked it. So she brought the idea home. She was surprised to learn that the school (same location as the former camp) still served it, twenty years later. I wonder if she would be surprised to see me sitting here in 2006, re-discovering the Putney Special for lunch.

My stomach is now full and I am deeply satisfied by this nourishing lunch full of warm memories and good tastes.