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. 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. 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. Krampner gives a business history of each of the main brands: Peter Pan (1928), Skippy (1932), and Jif (1958). Jif had fewer peanuts, more oil, and extra sugar and molasses. 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. "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.
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?"