Spread Too Thin: Scholars Have Discovered That Certain Everyday Food Items Have Played Pivotal Roles in the History of Civilization. Apparently, Peanut Butter Is Not One of Them

Article excerpt

Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, he All-American Food

by Jon Krampner

Columbia University Press, 320 pp.

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The average person, I would wager, knows approximately three things about peanut butter: One, it's not actually butter. Two, it pairs well with jelly. Three, there's probably a jar of it in a kitchen cabinet.

But Jon Krampner is not the average person. Krampner, a writer and peanut butter historian, can tell you that not only is peanut butter not butter, peanuts aren't even nuts. (They're legumes.) He can expound about other foods with which peanut butter has been paired at various points in history. (Cheesecake, pickles, and French dressing, to name three.) And he can tell you the year in which you were least likely to have a jar of peanut butter handy. (1980, the year of the great Peanut Butter Crisis, when a poor peanut crop led to peanut butter shortages and price gouging.)

Krampner presents these peanut-related facts and more in Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, his new book from Columbia University Press. (Full disclosure: I am employed by Columbia University, and an essay of mine was anthologized in a collection published by Columbia University Press.) The book is Krampner's attempt to trace peanut butter's evolution as a kitchen staple, consumer good, and cultural touchstone. "Peanut butter is the staple of childhood, and it's a comfort food," he writes in the preface. "In times of economic distress or emotional uncertainty (like the present), Americans turn to it."

Creamy & Crunchy is the latest in a recent string of popular histories that purport to examine broader cultural trends through the lens of a particular foodstuff. We've read about salt, and how it explained the world. Then there was cod, and sushi. One imagines aspiring pop historians rushing to their local Safeway, frantically scanning the aisles to see if any of the products there might sustain an entire book.

But while Creamy & Crunchy is well written and at times very witty, it ultimately lacks the narrative drive to appeal to the casual reader, the scholarly heft to tempt the academic, and the shamelessness to attract those who are looking for scandalous gossip about George Washington Carver, the scientist-educator who has often been (wrongly) credited with the invention of peanut butter. It is, however, the perfect book for condiment bores, or your relatives in the nut butter industry.

When it first appeared in the 1890s, peanut butter was a high-class health food, served at sanatoriums to rich women looking to reduce their waistlines. The mixture was beloved by turn-of-the-century nutrition fanatics like John Kellogg, who attempted to patent a terrible-tasting "food compound" similar to peanut butter, and Dr. Schindler, first name unknown, who supposedly prescribed peanut butter as a laxative.

Around the same time, a St. Louis entrepreneur named George Bayle realized that peanut butter had potential as a snack food. Initially, Bayle combined ground nuts with processed cheese to form an unappetizing spread called "Cheese-Nut," which, perhaps predictably, nobody liked. Eventually Bayle subtracted the Cheese from the Nut, and ended up with peanut butter.

Food historians disagree on whether either Bayle or Kellogg deserves to be remembered as the true inventor of peanut butter. But you could make the case that the boll weevil is most responsible for its rise to glory. The invasive pest arrived from Mexico at the turn of the century, decimating southern cotton crops and prompting desperate farmers to plant peanuts instead. The federal government did much to encourage peanut cultivation at the time, but Krampner barely addresses its efforts; he is more interested in dispelling the notion that George Washington Carver had anything whatsoever to do with peanuts' ascendance. …