February 7, 2013 10:23:01 AM
I bet you have a jar of peanut butter in your pantry. I do; and if I need a quick and easy meal, peanut butter on crackers and a glass of milk is not only quick and easy, it is scrumptious. I don't know that like average Americans I eat six pounds of peanut butter a year, but Americans do like their peanut butter; people in Europe and Africa tend not to like the taste and texture. Those are some of the many things I learned in Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food (Columbia University Press) by Jon Krampner, who "lives in Los Angeles and has a slight preference for crunchy." There has, Krampner says, been no volume about peanut butter like the ones we have had recently on candy, bananas, salt, or cod, and so this is a welcome description of peanut butter in all its facets: history, botany, economics, chemistry, and more. There are forty pages of footnotes, but this is a lively and entertaining book for anyone who wants to know more about a favorite food.
Peanuts were first domesticated in South America more than 3,000 years ago. The plant is an oddity in its way of reproducing. Thirty days after being planted, it makes short-lived flowers that wither and fall away. The shoot that used to hold them turns downward and burrows into the soil, and its tip becomes the fruit, the peanut itself. Peanuts are closer to peas than to nuts. The South American Indians mashed up the peanuts into a paste (not as smooth as our own concoction) and mixed it with cocoa. European traders brought peanuts to Europe, and to Africa, and they came to America with shipments of slaves. It took them a while to lose the taint of slavery or of being a food for poor people.
This was not true of peanut butter itself; it began as a treat for the upper classes. The fad for health sanitariums at the beginning of the twentieth century included peanut butter in salads, sandwiches, and soups. In fact, John Harvey Kellogg, more famous for developing corn flakes, had a patent in 1895 for making a "butter" or "paste" of crushed nuts (either peanuts or almonds). He had, however, boiled his nuts rather than roasting them, so this paste would have tasted much different from the peanut butter we know. The other claimant for inventor of peanut butter was an entrepreneur from St. Louis named George Bayle, who did not, like Kellogg, advocate it as a health food but as a snack food. Around 1895, he brought out "Cheese-Nut," a spread combining ground peanuts with processed cheese. It isn't hard to imagine that people disliked it, until he subtracted the cheese. He was the first person to produce and market peanut butter successfully. There is a legend that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, but Krampner debunks this. Carver, he says, was lionized by the whites of his time because he cheerfully accepted segregation; whatever his agricultural acumen, he said peanuts were easy to grow and that they grew best in clay soil, neither of which is true. There was a vendor selling peanut butter at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, the first time many Americans got to try it. Beech-Nut and Heinz introduced it nationally, and the country was hooked.
National distribution could only happen with hydrogenation which was introduced in the 1920s. Hydrogenation keeps the peanut oil from separating from the peanut solids; it produces a uniform, creamy texture. The melting point of the oil is raised so that it remains solid at room temperature. The shelf life of the product is longer because the oil does not pool at the top and go rancid from exposure to light and air; before this, peanut butter had to be kept in the fridge, with all the resultant problems of solidity rather than spreadability. The smoothness was a selling point for many, but for others, the peanut butter was just too smooth. In 1935, a manufacturer which had concentrated on smoothness took what it thought was a perverse step of adding crushed nuts to make a crunchy spread. The customer, as ever, was always right, and other brands started making as standard the crunchy alternative.
Krampner gives a business history of each of the main brands: Peter Pan, Skippy, and Jif. Peter Pan was the first, in 1928, and it took advantage of hydrogenation in taking the name: Peter Pan never grew old. There is no evidence that the company ever asked or reimbursed J. M. Barrie, author of the play, for the use of the name. The hydrogenation process was patented by Joseph Rosefield, and when Peter Pan tried to cut the fee it paid him, he ended the partnership with them and started making his own Skippy brand, in 1932. It was he who deigned to make crunchy as well as smooth, and he also instituted the wide-mouthed jar that made it easier to get all the peanut butter out with your knife. Strangely, he had made Choc-Nut Butter, a combination of chocolate and peanut butter in 1918; it failed, but Reese's succeeded with its confection in 1923. Jif was launched (taking over Big Top) in 1958. It didn't have as many peanuts in it, with more oil, including oil that was not from peanuts. Jif had extra sugar and molasses, too, and it took off, causing protests that it really wasn't a peanut butter, but if anything, it was a "peanut spread." Jif's competitors copied the formula, and this caused a long peanut butter battle between the manufacturers and the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA wanted the rule that a product had to have 95% peanuts to be a peanut butter, and the manufacturers wanted the easier 87%. After over a decade of wrangling, in 1971, the compromise was set at 90%. Jif has been the most popular brand in America for three decades, but Jif's success did not come just from what is in the jar. It had a brilliant advertising campaign starting in 1966, when it preyed on the dutifulness of the mothers doing the shopping: "Choosy mothers choose Jif." The campaign was so good, it has continued, although with trepidation Proctor and Gamble modernized "mothers" to "moms" in 1988.
Peanut butter didn't only sweep the country, it might save the world. Peanuts do restore nitrogen to the soil, while other crops take it away, but that is only one benefit peanut butter might bring. "Ready-to-use Therapeutic Foods" (RUTF) can cure starvation. There is a brand called Plumpy'Nut that comes in a three ounce packet of paste; it is peanut butter to which is added milk powder, sugar, vegetable oils, vitamins, and minerals. It has played a role in emergencies in sub-Saharan Africa, Niger, and in Haiti after the earthquake. Plumpy'Nut, however, is name-branded and patented, and as one commentator has said, "Poverty is a business." Ideally, impoverished areas with starving children would grow their own peanuts with their own workforces, and make their own RUTF. The international system of buying and selling has yet to be harnessed in this way.
The reason peanut butter can be used to fight starvation is that it is a very foody food. There have been fears about aflatoxin and salmonella, not to mention peanut allergies, but peanut butter is packed with protein. The oils in it are mostly the "good" ones, too, and there is no cholesterol. The problem is that the oils have plenty of calories; that's good for starving people, not so good for us others. There was a "peanut butter diet" based on its supposed ability to satisfy your hunger while simultaneously suppressing your appetite (yeah, that sounds like it will work). Peanut butter has lots of roles revealed in this entertaining book, and maybe it just reflects my own way of using it, but it is best enjoyed as a treat now and then. Krampner himself says he has binged on it in the past, but has only eaten it recently for research purposes (how dutiful of him). The research enables him, at the end of the book, to recommend best tasting brands, subdivided by consistency and the particular peanut breed used. He says he is a "peanut butter purist" and refused to award a recommendation to any "Peanut Butter and Jelly Combo." He admits he only tried one, but "how much trouble is it really to open two different jars and spread the contents on a piece of bread?"