We salute America's favorite spread
If you're a typical American kid, you'll eat more than 1,500 peanut-butter sandwiches by the time you graduate from high school. Whew! As a nation, we will consume 700 million pounds of peanut butter this year. That's enough to cover the entire floor of the Grand Canyon!Skip to next paragraph
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Why do we like this uniquely American food? Kids in other cultures mostly find peanut butter disgusting. They much prefer herring paste (in Scandinavia) or pungent brewer's yeast (in Australia) on their bread.
Why do we like it so much? Perhaps because it's home-grown. Peanuts are native to South America. Spanish explorers took them to grow in Africa. Slaves brought peanuts with them to North America. (Africans called peanuts "nguba." Have you ever heard of "goober peas"? That's what some Southerners used to call peanuts. Doesn't "goober" sound a lot like "nguba"?)
Making peanut butter is a simple process. (But first someone had to think of it. More on that later.) Peanuts are legumes, members of the pea family, not nuts. The yellow flowers of the plant bend down to the ground so that their seed pods (peanuts) can grow and ripen underground. It takes five months before peanuts are ready to pick.
Today, peanuts are shelled as they are harvested. Still in their shells, the peanuts are forced through a metal grid just big enough for the peanuts and not the peanuts in their shells to pass through. The shelled peanuts are bounced on a vibrating screen to shake off any bits of shell or other material.
The legumes are trucked to the peanut-butter plant in large cloth bags, each containing 110 pounds of peanuts. First stop: the tumbler. A large metal drum holds 330 pounds of peanuts and turns continuously as it roasts the peanuts at 300 degrees F. for 20 minutes.
After cooling, the peanuts are "blanched." Hot air and rubber blocks remove the outer skin and the hearts the little piece that holds the two peanut halves together. (The hearts are bitter, so they're sold for animal feed or for use in cheaper peanut butters.)
Now only the peanut kernels are left. They're poured into a grinder. Smooth peanut butter is what kids like best. Crunchy is what adults prefer. Usually salt is added, and sometimes sugar and vegetable oil. Then the peanut butter is packed into jars and sent to stores.
If it's "natural" peanut butter, you'll need to stir it up after you open the jar. That's because the peanut oil will float to the top. Hydrogenated peanut butter doesn't separate. Invented in the 1920s, it's the top-selling kind today.
Humans have been eating peanuts for thousands of years. Jars of peanuts have been discovered in Incan tombs dating to 1500 BC. But humans in North America were not as quick to catch on. By 1800, huge peanut crops were being grown in South Carolina as animal feed. Peanuts were pig food until the Civil War.
Food became scarce, and soldiers on both sides of the conflict turned to peanuts (known then as "goobers") as an alternative to meat. In 1890, a St. Louis physician, looking for an easily digestible form of protein for his patients without teeth, poured some peanuts into his meat grinder. He turned the crank and out came history's first batch of peanut butter. The unknown doctor never patented his invention. Cereal giant John Harvey Kellogg did, though, in 1895.
Around 1900, peanuts (and peanut butter) began to get popular. First, inventor George Washington Carver began promoting peanuts as a valuable crop. Second, new machinery was marketed that could harvest and clean peanuts faster and better than humans could.
The 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis showcased peanut butter as an ideal, nutritious food. It was a hit. But it took a war to spread peanut butter's appeal.
During World War II, meat and butter were scarce and expensive. Peanut butter was available, cheap, and nutritious. Soldiers in the war and people at home began to eat it more. After the war, the demand for peanut butter increased.