A History of Peanut Butter

Yes, I’m one weird ones that puts peanut butter on everything: toast in the morning, apples in the afternoon, spoonfuls out of the jar at night. It’s mostly an American staple, like Marmite is to the English. But I knew little of how it became an american staple, until reading a history of it in The New Yorker.

Peanut butter, the everyman staple, which contains neither butter nor nuts (peanuts are legumes), originated as a health food of the upper classes. First created for sanitariums like John Harvey Kellogg’s Western Health Reform Institute, it satisfied the need for a protein-rich food that did not have to be chewed. Wealthy guests at those institutions popularized it among the well-heeled. But there were economic pressures to expand peanut-butter consumption more democratically. Once the boll weevil devastated cotton cultivation at the turn of the century, Southern farmers were encouraged by George Washington Carver and others to adopt the peanut as a replacement crop. A burgeoning market for peanut butter substantially increased demand for their harvests. While both Kellogg and Carver have been touted as “the father of peanut butter,” Krampner makes a case for George Bayle, a St. Louis businessman who, in 1894, became the first to produce and sell it as a snack food. Peanut butter was featured in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and soon thereafter Beech-Nut and Heinz introduced it nationally. By 1907, thirty-four million pounds of peanut butter were produced, up from two million in 1899.

Even then, peanut butter, which did not travel well, was mostly produced for regional markets. It was the development of hydrogenation in the nineteen-twenties that led directly to the industrialization of peanut-butter production, the rise of the Big Three national brands, and the arrival of peanut butter in America’s lunch boxes. (In raising the melting point of peanut butter so that it is solid at room temperature, hydrogenation stops the separation of peanut oil and solids in the container and extends the product’s shelf life.) By 1937—the year before the young William Buckley was shipped across the pond—it had become so common that The New Yorker published its first peanut-butter cartoon. Hydrogenated peanut butter outsold natural for the first time in 1942. Today more than eighty per cent of the market is hydrogenated.

The only way to go is Adams Peanut Butter (oddly owned by Smuckers but so much better than anything Smuckers produces, which includes Jif) on the west coast and Teddie Peanut Butter in New England. Peanuts and salt. That’s all that should be in your peanut butter.

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