On Political Books

November/ December 2012 Spread Too Thin

Scholars have discovered that certain everyday food items have played pivotal roles in the history of civilization. Apparently, peanut butter is not one of them.

By Justin Peters

Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food
by Jon Krampner
Columbia University Press, 320 pp.


The average person, I would wager, knows approximately three things about peanut butter: One, it’s not actually butter. Two, it pairs well with jelly. Three, there’s probably a jar of it in a kitchen cabinet.

But Jon Krampner is not the average person. Krampner, a writer and peanut butter historian, can tell you that not only is peanut butter not butter, peanuts aren’t even nuts. (They’re legumes.) He can expound about other foods with which peanut butter has been paired at various points in history. (Cheesecake, pickles, and French dressing, to name three.) And he can tell you the year in which you were least likely to have a jar of peanut butter handy. (1980, the year of the great Peanut Butter Crisis, when a poor peanut crop led to peanut butter shortages and price gouging.)

Krampner presents these peanut-related facts and more in Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, his new book from Columbia University Press. (Full disclosure: I am employed by Columbia University, and an essay of mine was anthologized in a collection published by Columbia University Press.) The book is Krampner’s attempt to trace peanut butter’s evolution as a kitchen staple, consumer good, and cultural touchstone. “Peanut butter is the staple of childhood, and it’s a comfort food,” he writes in the preface. “In times of economic distress or emotional uncertainty (like the present), Americans turn to it.”

Creamy & Crunchy is the latest in a recent string of popular histories that purport to examine broader cultural trends through the lens of a particular foodstuff. We’ve read about salt, and how it explained the world. Then there was cod, and sushi. One imagines aspiring pop historians rushing to their local Safeway, frantically scanning the aisles to see if any of the products there might sustain an entire book.

But while Creamy & Crunchy is well written and at times very witty, it ultimately lacks the narrative drive to appeal to the casual reader, the scholarly heft to tempt the academic, and the shamelessness to attract those who are looking for scandalous gossip about George Washington Carver, the scientist-educator who has often been (wrongly) credited with the invention of peanut butter. It is, however, the perfect book for condiment bores, or your relatives in the nut butter industry.

When it first appeared in the 1890s, peanut butter was a high-class health food, served at sanatoriums to rich women looking to reduce their waistlines. The mixture was beloved by turn-of-the-century nutrition fanatics like John Kellogg, who attempted to patent a terrible-tasting “food compound” similar to peanut butter, and Dr. Schindler, first name unknown, who supposedly prescribed peanut butter as a laxative.

Around the same time, a St. Louis entrepreneur named George Bayle realized that peanut butter had potential as a snack food. Initially, Bayle combined ground nuts with processed cheese to form an unappetizing spread called “Cheese-Nut,” which, perhaps predictably, nobody liked. Eventually Bayle subtracted the Cheese from the Nut, and ended up with peanut butter.

Food historians disagree on whether either Bayle or Kellogg deserves to be remembered as the true inventor of peanut butter. But you could make the case that the boll weevil is most responsible for its rise to glory. The invasive pest arrived from Mexico at the turn of the century, decimating southern cotton crops and prompting desperate farmers to plant peanuts instead. The federal government did much to encourage peanut cultivation at the time, but Krampner barely addresses its efforts; he is more interested in dispelling the notion that George Washington Carver had anything whatsoever to do with peanuts’ ascendance. (Carver is portrayed as an “Uncle Tom” who dispensed puzzling and inaccurate advice about peanut farming.)

By the end of World War I, peanuts were a valuable cash crop and peanut butter had quintupled in popularity (“with no help from Carver,” Krampner notes). But it didn’t become a pantry staple until the 1920s, when hydrogenation entered the picture. If you’ve ever eaten “natural” peanut butter, you’ve noticed that peanut oil collects at the top of the jar. In addition to being gross (at least in my opinion), this also makes it easier for peanut butter to spoil. Hydrogenation prevents peanut oil and peanut solids from separating, thus lengthening its shelf life.

The process led directly to the rise of major national peanut butter brands, and Krampner spends several chapters profiling the Big Three: Peter Pan, the first mass-produced hydrogenated peanut butter, which, like its spritely fictional namesake, would never grow old; Skippy, known for its exacting quality standards and Norman Rockwell-penned advertisements; and Jif, which wasn’t technically peanut butter at all.

When Jif first appeared in the 1950s, the product was about 25 percent hydrogenated vegetable oil; “no one had ever tried to market as peanut butter something that had so few peanuts in it,” writes Krampner. Its popularity prompted a series of FDA hearings in 1965, during which the government decreed that a product needed to contain at least 90 percent peanuts in order to be called peanut butter. This is interesting stuff, and I wish Krampner did more with it, or tried to make some broader point about the regulatory environment during the rise of industrial food.

But, to its detriment, the book consistently avoids making broader insights, maintaining a frustratingly narrow focus on peanut butter alone. Not quite a work of journalism, not quite an academic history, Creamy & Crunchy ends up at times being a surprisingly shallow read. Krampner asks the big questions, like “Why do Americans love peanut butter?” and “Why isn’t peanut butter popular in other countries?” Unfortunately, his answers are simplistic: “We like the way it tastes” and “People in other countries don’t like the way it tastes,” essentially. Of course, there’s more to it than that—the federal government promoted peanuts as a foodstuff, whereas in Europe peanuts were pressed into peanut oil. Rather than explore that angle, Krampner spends his “Peanut Butter Goes International” chapter listing other countries in which peanut butter is eaten, and describing how it is eaten there. (In the Netherlands, for example, peanut butter is known as “peanut cheese”; George “Cheese-Nut” Bayle would undoubtedly have approved.)

Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

Comments

  • toowearyforoutrage on December 24, 2012 9:00 AM:

    " it didn’t become a pantry staple until the 1920s, when hydrogenation entered the picture. If you’ve ever eaten “natural” peanut butter, you’ve noticed that peanut oil collects at the top of the jar. In addition to bei"g gross (at least in my opinion), this also makes it easier for peanut butter to spoil."

    Skippy Natural No-Stir Peanut Butter uses solid, saturated, palm oil rather than Hydrogenated oil which is a tans fat linked to diabetes and cancer.

    No such links exist for palm oil. Both trans fat and saturated have some link to heart disease but the amounts in peanut butter are dwarfed by red meat, eggs, and whole milk.

    Buy Skippy Natural until the other brands stop using dangerous chemicals