Whether you’re a chunky or creamy enthusiast, peanut butter and its many forms include one of America’s favorite foods. Are you a brand loyalist, make sure it Skippy, Jif, Peter Pan, Smucker’s, or an organic-only consumer? Normally, Americans eat more than six pounds of peanut products each year, worth more than $2 billion at the retail level. Peanut butter accounts for approximately half of the U.S. edible use of peanuts-accounting for $850 million in retail sales each year.
The plant could be traced back to Peru and Brazil in South America around 3,500 years ago. (And the French just never quite got it.)
History informs us that it was not until the early 1800s that peanuts were grown commercially in the USA, and undoubtedly showed up at the dinner table of foodie president Thomas Jefferson, probably in the form of peanut soup, a delicacy in Southern areas. Civil War Confederate soldiers welcomed boiled peanuts as a change from hardtack and beef jerky. First cultivated chiefly for its oil, they were initially regarded as fodder for livestock and the poor, like so many other now-popular foods. Technically not nuts, peanuts are a part of the legume family and grown underground in pods, together with peas and beans.
Peanuts began to catch on in the late 1800s when Barnum and Bailey circus wagons traveled cross country hawking”hot roasted peanuts” to the crowds. (Throwing the bags to anxious consumers became an art form.)
As with a number of other popular foods, peanut butter was first introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 but basically still needed to be produced by hand.
Dr. George Washington Carver is unquestionably the father of the peanut industry, starting in 1903 with his landmark research. He recommended that farmers rotate their cotton plants with peanuts which replenished the nitrogen content in the soil that cotton depleted. In his tireless research, he discovered hundreds of uses for the humble peanut.
While it is believed that the Inca Indians in South America ground peanuts centuries past (we know for sure they weren’t spreading it on white bread with grape jelly), credit is usually given to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of corn flakes fame) for producing the initial peanut butter in 1895 for his older patients who had trouble chewing different proteins.
In the U.S. peanuts would be the 12th most valuable cash crop and have an annual farm value of more than one billion dollars. They’re an easy, low-maintenance crop, nutritious, economical, transportable and just plain delicious. Some of the more popular uses include:
Brittle + other candies
Baking and cookies
Snacks, both roasted or boiled, in-shell or no-shell
Not to be forgotten is peanut oil, which is a highly regarded form of cooking oil, because of its ability to withstand higher temperatures and the added benefit that food doesn’t hold any peanut taste after cooking.
Sadly, because of rise in allergies, peanuts are evaporating from sporting events and other places, and some airlines replaced them years ago with cheaper pretzels. But however you like them, in their simplest form, covered in chocolate or mixed into your favorite dishes, this hot snack and sandwich filling crosses all economic and age barriers. We’ve gone nutty, all right. And for those who are allergic, you have our heartfelt sympathy.