Peanut butter An upside-down beginning

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

What would you think if you pulled a small green bush out of the ground and found peanuts clinging to the underside?You might think someone was playing a trick! But in fact you'd be making a discovery. And you'd be sharing an experience that dates back to the 1500s and the Inca Indians of Peru.

The Incas treasured this curious bush and the peanuts it produced. We know this because peanuts and pottery jars shaped like peanuts have been found in ancient Inca tombs.

They may even have enjoyed peanut butter. Although it is generally accepted that peanut butter was ''invented'' by a St. Louis physician around 1890, no one remembers his name. Records do show, however, that in 1903 Ambrose W. Straub of St. Louis patented a machine to make peanut butter.

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Today the United States produces about 4 billion pounds of peanuts. One half of these are used for peanut butter. No doubt you and your friends and family help eat some of it.

As you have already discovered, peanuts grow underground. These knee-high bushes bear delicate yellow flowers. When the flowers wilt, a stem or peg is formed. Pegs grow away from the plant and reach into the soil. Warmth, moisture, and some air help each peg mature into a peanut. The process takes four to five months. One bush may yield 40 or so mature pegs or peanuts.

This small plant journeyed a long way before achieving its modern-day status.

Around 1630 the Spanish conquistadors traveled to South America seeking gold. They discovered peanuts. They could not know at the time that peanuts, or cacahuetes, as they called them, were also a worthy treasure.

The conquistadors took cacahuetes back to Spain for planting, and they became an important crop. Eventually Spanish ships carried peanuts to Africa, where they were traded for spices and elephant tusks. The Africans called them ''goobers.'' Goobers were highly favored.

Much later, peanuts arrived in the United States with Africans who were transported to be sold as slaves. These Africans planted peanut in the Southern states. But the peanut went relatively unnoticed until the Civil War. Then Union and Confederate soldiers began to appreciate the good qualities of the peanuts. They were easy to keep, easy to prepare, and provided food energy. Best of all, they tasted good. When soldiers returned home, they spread news of the tasty peanut. Sometimes they brought a pocketful home for sharing.

Today several varieties of peanuts are available. You are probably buying the Virginia peanut when you enjoy fresh roasted nuts at the circus or ballgame. The ''runner'' and Spanish varieties are generally used in making peanut butter.

It takes over 600 million pounds of shelled peanuts a year to satisfy the American appetite for peanut butter. Georgia and Alabama produce most of the peanuts used by the peanut-butter industry.

Did you ever check the label on your own favorite brand of peanut butter? By law, all peanut butter must contain 90 percent peanuts. Other ingredients may be salt, sweetener, and oil.

Machinery is used to roast, cool, and removed skins from the cleaned, shelled peanuts. Some manufacturers open the kernels and remove a small bitter piece called the heart. The skins and heart of the peanut can be sold to make peanut oil. Sometimes the hearts are used for bird seed. Once again the peanuts are checked for cleanliness. When several varieties are used, they must be well mixed. Then they are ready for the grinding disks. The disks can be set to produce various degrees of smoothness. Chunky peanut butter can be made by adding chopped peanuts to the creamy butter. Then other ingredients may be added.

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