Ahhh, Peanut Butter.
Did you know that March 1st is National Peanut Butter Lovers’ Day? I bet you didn’t! I’m sure you can figure out your own way to celebrate if you’re a peanut butter lover. If you aren’t inspired by the time you finish reading, you’ll find a prize at the end of this rainbow, baby! A recipe that uses peanut butter! Read on.
First of all, few foods elicit such an immense sense of nostalgia for Americans as peanut butter. Heck, I love peanut butter SO MUCH that I absolutely refuse to try a Whole 30 or Paleo diet (both have peanuts, and therefore, peanut butter, on their DO NOT EAT lists). Since so many of us grew up eating the ooey gooey savory and yet sweet concoction on a daily basis, seems like it’s a part of pop culture. As a result, peanut butter has even become a meme among the weightlifting community; “Will squat for peanut butter” is a common phrase.
Some of my best childhood food memories involve soft, super-processed wheat sandwich bread laden with nearly a full half-inch of peanutty goodness. I always matched the creamy star with equal amounts of its painfully sweet soul mate, grape jelly. A calorie bomb, for sure, but a deeply satisfying one. Today, I prefer to enjoy a much more moderate amount of Crazy Richard’s Creamy matched with banana and whole grain toast, but peanut butter has remained a staple, despite my much healthier, measured diet.
So most of us know (apologies to those with an allergy to the jaunty legume) the intoxicating draw of the sticky stuff, but how much do we really know of the history behind it? To celebrate National Peanut Lovers’ Day (hellooooooo, it’s today), I’m going to give you both the creamy AND the chunky about our pal, peanut butter!
Peanut Butter Starts with Peanuts
Peanuts originate from South America, and the Spanish Conquistadors who brought them home consequently spread them throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Peanuts made it to the USA by way of Africans arriving in the 1700s. PT Barnum helped popularize peanuts by selling roasted peanuts at his circuses in the late 1800s, and they were also popular at baseball games, but they were still picked by hand which meant quality was inconsistent. The advent of mechanical equipment for planting, harvesting, shelling and cleaning helped the demand for peanuts for snacking and candy grow rapidly.
Most peanut historians agree that Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was the first to make peanut butter in the US, because we have records of the Kellogg brothers patenting a steamed peanut butter process dating to 1895. Kellogg, a medical doctor with a distinctly holistic approach to health, ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a place for the rich and famous to recover their health.
The explosion of the consumption of peanut butter actually began with the humble boll weevil. What’s that you say? Andrea, didn’t I learn in grade school history that the boll weevil destroyed COTTON crops at the turn of the 20th century? Yes, you certainly did. Furthermore, it’s what happened next that started the ball rolling on this American staple. You see, as a result of the cotton crops being destroyed, Carver encouraged Southern farmers to sow their fields with peanuts.
I Like to Stir It, Stir It
The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair brought peanut butter into the limelight and it wasn’t long before the big names of Beech-Nut and Heinz started producing it across the US. As a result, in the eight years between 1899 and 1907, the production of peanut butter increased SEVENTEEN FOLD, from 2 million to 34 million pounds. But even then, peanut butter was still mostly produced in regional markets, due to it traveling poorly.
Remember our friend George Washington Carver? By 1916 he’d published a research bulletin that outlined how to grow peanuts. It even included 105 recipes so people could figure out how best to eat them. Switching to peanuts prevented many farmers from losing their livelihood, and it seems like that’s a good thing: by the 1920s hydrogenation had been developed. This process for a higher melting point of the product, therefore extending its shelf life. It also prevented the oil separating from the solids. Consequently, national manufacturers began producing peanut butter on a massive scale, and bringing the creamy treat to lunch boxes. In 1937 peanut butter was so popular it starred in its first cartoon in the New Yorker.
These days, Jif and Skippy are the Pepsi and Coke of peanut butter, since it seems most people prefer one or the other. There’s definitely a move back to the unhydrogenated, natural peanut butters due to the decreasing popularity of the hydrogenation process. I was a die hard Skippy girl for years, although these days I prefer to date Crazy Richard – he’s all natural, baby! What’s your preference?
And don’t forget: peanut butter can be used in tons of savory dishes too, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. Here’s a great starter dish for those interested in trying West African cuisine:
Chicken in Peanut Tomato Sauce
A lighter and healthier version of the ubiquitous “Groundnut Stew” from all over West Africa. CALS: 378, FAT: 20g, CARBS: 17g, PROT: 37g
- 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast
- ½ cup peanut butter (I like Crazy Richard’s)
- ½ cup tomato paste
- 1 cup, chopped onions, raw
- ½ cup water
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- Season chicken with salt, pepper and cayenne, and broil/grill until seared on the outside. I cooked mine on a dry Lodge cast iron griddle.
- Meanwhile, over medium low heat, dry saute the onions in a large saucepan until they begin to brown. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add the tomato paste to the onions, cooking for about 30 seconds to caramelized the natural sugars. Whisk in the peanut butter and water.
- Bring to a simmer over very low heat, add chicken and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve over rice.