Shipped off to boarding school in England during the Great Depression, the twelve-year-old William F. Buckley, Jr., was sustained by regular care packages from his father. The biweekly deliveries contained a case of grapefruit and a large jar of peanut butter. In a 1981 essay titled “In the Thrall of an Addiction,” Buckley recalled that his British schoolmates “grabbed instinctively for the grapefruit—but one after another actually spit out the peanut butter.” No wonder, he sneered, “they needed help to win the war.”
Half a century later, when I left Washington, D.C., for school in Northern Ireland, I packed my bags with jars of Skippy. Not much had changed. “Mashed peanuts on bread?” my friends in Belfast asked, incredulously—as if peanuts were synonymous with maggots. The American love of peanut butter is as mystifying to many Britons as the British love of Marmite (yeast extract on toast?) is to me, but, as Jon Krampner writes in “Creamy & Crunchy ,” his enjoyable and informative new history of peanut butter, there are plenty of other countries that adore the crushed goober pea. Canadians eat it for breakfast; Haitians call it mamba and buy it, freshly pulverized, from street vendors; it is popular in the Netherlands, where it is known as pindakaas, or peanut cheese. Peanut butter is also increasingly found in the Saudi Arabian diet, thanks, in part, to expatriate oil workers. Nevertheless, it remains, in Krampner’s phrase, an “all-American food.”
Like other all-American foods such as the hamburger, the hot dog, and the ice-cream cone, peanut butter first emerged as a retail item at the end of the nineteenth century. With the assistance of corporations like ConAgra and Procter & Gamble, it was transformed into a billion-dollar business in the middle of the twentieth century. Peanut-butter sales, which dipped in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, because of health concerns, have steadily risen in recent years, particularly since the start of the recession. Cheap and nutritious, it’s the perfect food for hard times. The twenty-first century has also seen the increasing popularity and availability of alternatives to peanut butter’s Big Three: Jif, Skippy, and Peter Pan. Artisanal and organic varieties are easier than ever to find as food entrepreneurs try to do to peanut butter what Starbucks did to coffee.
Peanut butter, the everyman staple, which contains neither butter nor nuts (peanuts are legumes), originated as a health food of the upper classes. First created for sanitariums like John Harvey Kellogg’s Western Health Reform Institute, it satisfied the need for a protein-rich food that did not have to be chewed. Wealthy guests at those institutions popularized it among the well-heeled. But there were economic pressures to expand peanut-butter consumption more democratically. Once the boll weevil devastated cotton cultivation at the turn of the century, Southern farmers were encouraged by George Washington Carver and others to adopt the peanut as a replacement crop. A burgeoning market for peanut butter substantially increased demand for their harvests. While both Kellogg and Carver have been touted as “the father of peanut butter,” Krampner makes a case for George Bayle, a St. Louis businessman who, in 1894, became the first to produce and sell it as a snack food. Peanut butter was featured in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and soon thereafter Beech-Nut and Heinz introduced it nationally. By 1907, thirty-four million pounds of peanut butter were produced, up from two million in 1899.
Even then, peanut butter, which did not travel well, was mostly produced for regional markets. It was the development of hydrogenation in the nineteen-twenties that led directly to the industrialization of peanut-butter production, the rise of the Big Three national brands, and the arrival of peanut butter in America’s lunch boxes. (In raising the melting point of peanut butter so that it is solid at room temperature, hydrogenation stops the separation of peanut oil and solids in the container and extends the product’s shelf life.) By 1937—the year before the young William Buckley was shipped across the pond—it had become so common that The New Yorker published its first peanut-butter cartoon. Hydrogenated peanut butter outsold natural for the first time in 1942. Today more than eighty per cent of the market is hydrogenated.
Krampner gives brief histories of all three of the major brands, which each had their turn as the nation’s top spread. They illustrate the concentration and mechanization of the nation’s food supply. Peter Pan, introduced in 1928, was the first dominant national peanut butter. It used a partial-hydrogenation process patented by Joseph Rosefield, an entrepreneur from Lexington, Kentucky. In 1932, after Peter Pan’s parent company sought to cut his licensing fee, Rosefield ended the partnership and started making his own brand: Skippy. Inventive and obsessed with quality control, Rosefield emerges as perhaps the most important and likable figure in the history of peanut butter. By the end of his career, he held ten patents relating to the food and numerous notable innovations. He set up his own research lab and conceived a new way of churning—rather than grinding—his peanuts to produce a smoother texture. By introducing fragments of crushed peanuts into his butter, he invented crunchy—or chunky, if you prefer. He instituted the wide-mouth jar that has been standard ever since. And he paid his employees well, to boot. Five years before Reese’s created its peanut-butter cup, Rosefield brought Choc-Nut Butter to market. He seems to have been a little too far ahead of the curve in combining peanuts and chocolate: the product failed. Nevertheless, Skippy thrived, overtaking Peter Pan in the late forties and remaining the nation’s favorite until 1980. Rosefield sold his company to Best Foods (makers of Hellman’s mayonnaise) for six million dollars in 1955.
That same year, Procter & Gamble bought Big Top peanut butter from William T. Young of Kentucky and, in the ensuing years, reformulated and rebranded it to compete with Skippy and Peter Pan. P. & G. named its product Jif, used oils other than peanut oil in its hydrogenation process, and sweetened the recipe, adding sugar and molasses. These changes—many of which were emulated by Jif’s competitors—prompted a lengthy battle between the peanut-butter industry and the federal government over the standard of identity for the food. The Food and Drug Administration proposed that a minimum of ninety-five per cent peanuts were required for it to be called peanut butter. Peanut-butter makers wanted the level set at eighty-seven per cent. After a dozen years of legal wrangling, the standard of ninety per cent was established in 1971. Jif, meanwhile, had, with the assistance of Grey Advertising, come up with a new slogan— “Choosy mothers choose Jif”—which helped propel it from third to first. Now owned by Smucker’s, Jif has been the nation’s best-selling peanut butter for more than three decades.
As beloved as it is, peanut butter has not been exempt from the backlash against the industrialization of food. Krampner discusses the “dark side” of peanut butter: the recent spike in peanut allergies, the deaths from salmonella contamination at processing plants, and public-health concerns over its fat content. He also devotes a chapter to Frank Ford of Arrowhead Mills, the natural-foods pioneer who started making peanut butter in 1970. Arrowhead’s Deaf Smith brand was the first organic peanut butter and the first to use the difficult-to-grow Valencia peanut. It became the progenitor of many of the natural and gourmet varieties now available at your local Whole Foods. I myself am part of this shift in tastes, having some years ago given up my loyalty to Skippy in favor of natural peanut butters made by Smucker’s and Trader Joe’s. Krampner helpfully lists some of his favorites—and one of the unexpected pleasures of reading this book has been sampling the artisanal peanut butters made by Woodstock Foods of Providence, Rhode Island, the Krema Nut Company of Columbus, Ohio, and Koeze Cream-Nut of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The difference between the Big Three and these peanut butters is akin to the difference between Velveeta and a good aged cheddar. One can only wonder what Buckley—a Skippy man like myself—might have said.
Photograph: CN Digital Studio.