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

I don’t want to be too critical. Krampner’s a great writer, which counts for a lot, and the book is a fun, easy, interesting read. But it just doesn’t cohere. After the Jif chapters Krampner completely loses his narrative thread, and you can feel him scrambling to list everything he learned about peanut butter. There’s an interesting chapter about the Peanut Corporation of America, which distributed salmonella-tainted peanut butter in the late 2000s. A chapter titled “Where Are the Peanut Butters of Yesteryear?” addresses industry consolidation while offering a wistful look at various defunct peanut butter brands. (Long’s Ox-Heart Peanut Butter, we hardly knew ye.) Throughout the book, Krampner includes several odd peanut butter-related recipes (my favorite being peanut butter garlic bread, which is just what you think it is), which you can make at your own risk. Any of these topics would have made for a killer magazine article. But they don’t come together here. The book could use some serious hydrogenization of its own.

Earlier this year, Beacon Press published a social history of white bread, which makes some sense, because there’s a case to be made that processed white bread is a foodstuff of some larger societal importance, its widespread adoption a lens on the rise of obesity and processed foods and the decline of the locavore diet. The same cannot be said for peanut butter. (Well, it can be said, but Krampner doesn’t say it.) On one level it’s refreshing that Krampner doesn’t claim that peanut butter is the key to Western civilization, or anything like that. But a book touting its subject as “the All-American food” ought to at least successfully argue that it is the All-American food, rather than just an All-American one. Krampner fails to argue that peanut butter is any more relevant than Spam, or Crisco, or any other domestic grocery items that come in cans.

Instead, he wallows in peanut butter arcana, and the chapters lag as Krampner spreads fact after fact after fact. Did you know that, besides creamy and crunchy, there used to be a coarse, grainy type of peanut butter? That former Texas Governor John Connally, wounded by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963, once served as King Reboog (“goober” spelled backward) in the Floresville Peanut Festival? That you could call a peanut butter and jelly sandwich an “Appomattox,” because “it represents the peaceful coming together of peanuts, grown in the states of the old Confederacy, and grapes, grown in such Yankee precincts as the Northeast, Midwest, and Washington state”? That peanut-processing plants can be dangerous? (“Peanut skins are spontaneous combustion waiting to happen,” warns one industry lifer.)

This is all interesting stuff, and if you are looking to bone up before attending a peanut-themed bar trivia night, then this is the book for you. But otherwise, I have trouble imagining a wide audience for this well-written, well-researched, and utterly superfluous book. The best Krampner does in terms of a rationale for why Creamy & Crunchy exists is in the preface, where he says that “remarkably, given its widespread popularity, there hasn’t been a book about peanut butter on the burgeoning shelf of pop food histories. Now there is.” The question is whether there needed to be.

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