October 19, 2019

The Peanut Gallery: An American Icon Examined

Forget apple pie — if there is an iconic American food, it is surely peanut butter.

The rich and satisfying story of peanut butter is told by Jon Krampner in “Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food” (Columbia University Press: $27.95), a serious work of scholarship that is enlivened by the author’s irrepressible love for all things peanut-related. As Krampner himself acknowledges, we have been treated to histories of codfish, oranges, and candy in recent years, “But remarkably, given its widespread popularity, there hasn’t  been a book about peanut butter on the burgeoning shelf of pop food histories. Now there is.”

Kampner’s deep dive into the history of the peanut is on glorious display in his irresistible book. Peanuts may be the all-American food, but they are not native to North America: “They originated in South America,” where they have been cultivated since 3000 B.C.E., “and arrived here obliquely.”  Roasted and salted peanuts are about 50 percent fat, although “[s]o long as one doesn’t overindulge in peanuts — which can be a challenge — that fat is mostly beneficial.” Goobers, the resonant nickname for peanuts, derives from a word in the Kimbundu language of Angola, “one of the few words in American English with an African derivation.”

But what Krampner finds most compelling is what we might call the social history of the peanut — the role it has played in American business, culture and identity. He reminds us that peanuts are rooted, quite literally, in the South, where they are still chiefly grown in a swath that runs from Virginia to Georgia. Peanuts were standard fare in Confederate war rations, and Union soldiers found them appetizing, too. “All those soldiers gobbling goobers,” explains Krampner, “led to the first major spike in U.S. peanut consumption.”  But peanut butter as we know it today was not invented until later in the nineteeth century, and it achieved mass appeal only after the turn of the twentieth, along with several other American favorites that were available to visitors at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, including the hamburger, the hot dog, and the ice cream cone.

Peanuts were first used in the South to slop the hogs, but peanut butter was a delicacy to be found at “dainty tea-rooms and high-class restaurants” during the Gilded Age. Recipes for the peanut butter sandwich began to appear in cookbooks in 1896: “Not just a sandwich, the PBJ meets the commonly accepted definition of a meal,” Krampner points out, “a form of protein, one or more fruits or vegetables, and a serving of starch.”  John Harvey Kellogg, then still running a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, served peanut butter to “patients who had difficulty chewing or digesting them properly.”  Kellogg, the inventor of the breakfast cereal, also filed the first patent for peanut butter, but it was George Bayle who first produced and sold packaged peanut butter as a snack food rather than a health food.

Krampner is self-evidently fascinated with the primal history and inner workings of the peanut butter industry. “So who’s the father of modern peanut butter?,” he asks, “master promoter John Harvey Kellogg or snack-food salesman George Bayle?” He debunks the popular belief that George Washington Carver was the inventor of peanut butter and points out that his pamphlet on “How to Grow the Peanut” serves to reveal that “Carver didn’t understand some peanut basics.” He argues that hydrogenation, first introduced in the 1920s, was “perhaps the most significant development in the industry’s history” simply because it vastly increased the shelf-life of packaged peanut butter and allowed it to become a mass-market item.

Exactly here is where “Creamy & Crunchy” reaches its cruising altitude. Peanut butter may be ubiquitous in American popular culture, but only because it has been marketed so aggressively by the corporations who make and sell it. Some of the brands are still famous — Peter Pan, Skippy and Jif, for example — and some are items of nostalgia, such as the Oz brand that entered the U.S. market in 1940s. Commerce on the corporate scale has attracted the attention of the FDA now and then on issues ranging from salmonella contamination to how much vegetable oil can be added to the product before it can no longer be called peanut butter.  “The health problem that would give the peanut and peanut butter industries the biggest headache, though, was fat,” writes Krampner. “Peanuts, being half oil, are half fat, and if you eat too many, you’ll get fat.” (For precisely the same reason, as Krampner points out, “for starving children in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the third World, it represents a second chance at life.)

The real charm of “Creamy & Crunchy” is the author’s own passion for peanut butter.  He concedes that hydrogenated peanut butter still outsells “what is variously called natural, old-fashioned or unstabilized peanut butter” by nine to one. “As for myself,” he pauses to tell us, “I eat unstabilized or natural peanut butter almost exclusively.” He even reveals his favorite brands, but he cannot confine himself to a single winner — he lists 14 brands in 13 categories ranging from “Best-Tasting Overall” to “Most Intense Fresh-Peanut Aroma” In two other categories, he lists no winners at all “as the author is a peanut butter purist.”

Note to the Reader: I am obliged — and proud — to point out that I am mentioned in the author’s acknowledgments for having provided legal advice in connection with “Creamy & Crunchy.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.