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.)

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