We salute America's favorite spread

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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!

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"?)

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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.

How did PB meet up with J?

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.

Jams and jellies have been around since the 1500s. Peanut butter only since 1890. When did they get together? Some food historians say World War II soldiers may have added jelly to peanut butter to make it less sticky. Ration menus for soldiers and lunch-counter menus of that era list peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But it's likely that PB&J dates as far back as the 1910s. A reader of this newspaper born in 1913 wrote to say that her mother had been at the Battle Creek, Mich., sanatorium run by the brothers of Mr. Kellogg (the man who patented peanut butter). That's where her mother first encountered PB&J.

But if you've had enough of peanut butter and jelly by now, you might try some savory alternatives. A restaurant in New York City, Peanut Butter & Co., offers spicy peanut butter and grilled chicken with pineapple jam, peanut butter and pickles, of white-chocolate peanut butter with orange marmalade.

Try Elvis's favorite PB concoction

The Krema Nut Co. of Columbus, Ohio, makes and sells 12 kinds of peanut-butter sandwiches. Owner Mike Giunta says the two most popular combinations are the Nutty-Mallow (peanut butter with marshmallow fluff) and the Buckeye (peanut-butter with chocolate hazelnut spread). There's also Elvis's favorite, the P.B. Nanna, a toasted peanut-butter sandwich with honey and sliced bananas.

The Krema Nut Co. knows its stuff. They are the oldest peanut-butter company still in operation today. They first started churning out the crunchy and creamy stuff in 1908.

Finally, here are some peanut facts from the National Peanut Board to help you appreciate your next legume-paste sandwich:

• George Washington Carver invented more than 300 uses for peanuts, including axle grease.

• Sen. Barry Goldwater once shaved with peanut butter on a camping trip. (He used creamy style.)

• The peanut has been to the moon. Astronaut Alan Shepard took one with him on his space flight.

Make your own peanut butter

It's easy and fun, and a tasty way to experiment with food.

You will need:
1 1/2 cups unsalted roasted peanuts
1 tablespoon peanut oil
Food processor (You'll also need to ask an adult to help you with this.)
Mixing bowl
Mixing spoon
Storage container
Measuring cups and spoons

Directions for smooth peanut butter:

1. Pour the peanuts into the bowl. Add the oil, and mix well. Pour the mixture into the food processor.

2. Blend the mixture until it's very smooth. (Try some!)

3. Store your smooth peanut butter in a sealed container in the refrigerator. It will be good for two weeks.

For chunky peanut butter:

1. Take about 1/4 cup out of the 1 1/2 cups of peanuts and set them aside.

2. Pour the rest of the peanuts into the mixing bowl. Add the oil, and stir. Pour the mixture into the food processor.

3. Process the mixture until it's very smooth. Stop the food processor. Pour in the 1/4 cup of peanuts you had set aside. Carefully stir them in a little.

4. Process a few seconds more to create the chunks in your chunky peanut butter. (Peanut butter makers used to stir in the 'hearts' they'd removed from the peanuts to make chunky peanut butter!)

5. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator. It will keep

about two weeks.

Source: www.kidshealth.org

Websites for peanut-butter fans

www.gotmilk.com/contest.html – Wild peanut-butter sandwich recipes from kids. Try the peanut butter, dried cherries, crisped-rice, and chocolate chips combination.

www.peanutbutterlovers.com– The Peanut Advisory Board site has history, recipes, and more.

www.nationalpeanutboard.com/funfacts.html – Fun facts from the National Peanut Board.

www.lib.iastate.edu/spcl/gwc/bio.html – Find out more about peanut pioneer George Washington Carver.

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