When I was young, I borrowed from the library a book by the American author Elizabeth Enright. I often wanted to be like the characters in the books I read, so I begged my mother to buy some peanut butter, previously unknown in our household. A jar of Sun-Pat duly appeared and ISTR that I liked it but no one else did. Many years later, when we were in our vegetarian phase, peanut butter became an important part of our diet and not just in sandwiches. I bought it in huge plastic tubs from the whole food shop and our brand of choice was Whole Earth. I’m no longer a strict vegetarian but I still eat peanut butter at least twice a week and have remained brand loyal. So I was delighted to be offered Creamy and Crunchy by the publishers, Columbia University Press, via NetGalley.
I am overwhelmed by facts about peanuts. I know where most of them are grown (Georgia); which variety is the best and easiest cropper (runners); how they are cultivated (formerly labour intensively, now by machine); how peanuts are turned into peanut butter. Who produced the first recognisable peanut butter? Probably John Harvey Kellogg, who saw it as a health food. The world’s oldest peanut butter brand is actually an Australian one, called Sanitarium. I even know why peanut growers revere the boll weevil: as the beastie wiped out cotton crops in the South, farmers turned to peanuts as an alternative cash crop. There’s a splendid monument to the boll weevil: ‘Probably the only Greek Revival–style statue in the United States dedicated to a pestilential insect, it was built by the citizens of Enterprise in 1919 to thank the boll weevil for laying waste to southern cotton’.
Some of the problems of early peanut butter production were texture (too sticky), separation (oil rose to the top) and preservation (it had to be refrigerated). The answer was hydrogenation. It stabilises the product by preventing oil separation and prolongs shelf life but is less ‘natural’ and has led to health scares. Consumers tend not to worry about it and the most popular US brands, Jif, Skippy and Peter Pan are all hydrogenated. Peanut butter has failed to conquer the world (‘People in Europe just don’t like peanut butter’, says one source) but has a widespread distribution. Canadians eat even more peanut butter than Americans do. The Dutch eat a lot but they call it peanut cheese, Pindakaas, to protect their butter producers. It’s eaten in Germany, through the influence of US troops stationed there and is used in Far Eastern cuisines, for instance in satay sauce. I’m disappointed to find that here in the UK we don’t merit a mention!
Opinions have changed over the years as to whether or not peanut butter is good for you. Too much (see Elvis) can probably kill you and peanut allergies are increasing in the developed world. There are documented deaths caused by salmonella contamination at production plants. The author is scathing about the deregulated George W years which allowed manufacturers to get away with killing people. It is possible to suffer from Arachibutyrophobia, ‘the ten-dollar word for the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth’. In the 1960s Frank Ford began producing a natural peanut butter, Deaf Smith (sounds like a band!), which was in tune with the rising counter culture. Produced at Arrowhead mills, ‘Deaf Smith was also the first organic peanut butter and may have been the first to use unblanched peanuts’ It later became known as ‘Arrowhead Mills Organic Valencia, then Arrowhead Mills Organic Creamy.’
The most promising use of peanut butter as a health food is the development of a therapeutic peanut paste known as Plumpy’nut . This is a combination of peanut paste, dried milk, vitamins and minerals, which can prevent malnutrition in third world countries. It keeps well, is easy to use and contains all necessary nutrients. It was invented by a French scientist who declined to make money out of it, but it is becoming big business. For regular consumers, manufacturers are constantly diversifying to produce variations on the staple product: chocolate, banana, jelly, marshmallow, are just some of the flavours available. These products have to be called ‘peanut spreads’ and are of course despised by purists. Today there’s a trend towards artisanal production, using old machinery.
Creamy and Crunchy is a long, thoroughly researched and amusing book, with all sources and references cited. I think it could have done with some tightening up as there is some repetition. I read it on the Kindle, so I can’t reproduce any of the fascinating illustrations, which is a shame; I'd love to show you the boll weevil monument. There are recipes, too, including the author’s own, The Simon and Garfunkel bagel sandwich. The ingredients include parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. No mention of our family favourite, peanut butter and Marmite. I recommend the book to all peanut butter lovers. Me, I daren’t even look at a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup; just too irresistible.
Peanut butter: yes or no?