Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All American Food
by Jon Krampner
Columbia University Press, 2014
Review by Rosanna Keyes
For many Americans peanut butter holds a special place in our hearts. Often considered an “all American food” it rivals hot dogs and hamburgers. As integral food of childhood, it also carries a certain nostalgic sentimentality that arises when we smell it, taste it, even think about it. Memories arise, and we slip back in time, sifting through the years that have brought us to the here and now. We may find ourselves, while standing in the aisle at the grocery store, waxing poetic to strangers about our first peanut butter sandwich, and perhaps discussing the pros and cons of various brands. Other foods no doubt have this powerful effect as well, but there is a certain universality about peanut butter that stands out.
Although ‘nut’ is in their name, peanuts are actually legumes, “more closely related botanically to peas, beans, clover and alfalfa, as Jon Kramper explains in his Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All American Food, “than to walnuts and almonds which have hard shells and grow on trees.” Peanuts are also very nutritious, being high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and since they are legumes they add valuable nitrogen back into the soil. Peanuts are also one of the only plants to flower above ground, but fruit below ground. And, though they are now a fiercely American food, they are not native, hailing, in fact, from South America.
In the US, Virginias and Runners are the two most commonly grown varieties, followed by Spanish and Valencia. Most commercial peanut butter brands now use runners as they “are less expensive, easier to grow and harvest, and produce higher yields,” although Krampner goes on to explain that runners are the least flavorful of all varieties. Many Americans tasted peanut butter for the first time at the St. Louis Worlds Fair in 1904, but it was after WWII that consumption of peanut butter took off. It is around this time that three major brands emerged on the market: Jiff, Skippy and Peter Pan, all of which vied for the consumers loyalty.
As with many mass produced foods, cases of Salmonella contamination began to crop up, the first documented one occurring at a Peter Pan plant in the 1970’s. Despite these and other health concerns related to peanut butter (specifically the use of hydrogenated oils to stabilize peanut butters) consumption continues to grow exponentially. And, for those of you who need more proof of America’s obsession with peanut butter, or who may just need an interesting tidbit to share at your next cocktail party, the worlds largest peanut butter and jelly sandwich was made on November 13, 2010 at the Great American Peanut Butter Festival in Grand Saline Texas. It weighed 1, 342 pounds and contained 292 pounds of peanut butter, 340 pounds of grape jelly and 710 pounds of bread.
Jon Krampner has done an admirable job breaking down the history of peanut butter, presenting its ups and downs, and tracing its prominent role over the years as a food staple in American society.