Whether you are a chunky or creamy fan, peanut butter and its many forms comprise one of America’s favorite foods. Are you a brand loyalist, be it Skippy, Jif, Peter Pan, Smucker’s, or an organic-only consumer? On average, Americans eat more than six pounds of peanut products each year, worth more than $2 billion at the retail level. Peanut butter accounts for about half of the U.S. edible use of peanuts-accounting for $850 million in retail sales each year.
The peanut plant can be traced back to Peru and Brazil in South America around 3,500 years ago. European explorers first discovered peanuts in Brazil and saw its value, taking them back to their respective countries, where it was a bit slow to catch on but became popular in Western Africa. (And the French just never quite got it.)
History tells us that it wasn’t until the early 1800s that peanuts were grown commercially in the United States, and undoubtedly showed up at the dinner table of foodie president Thomas Jefferson, probably in the form of peanut soup, a delicacy in Southern regions. After all, Jefferson was an enthusiastic gardener who lived in Virginia. Civil War Confederate soldiers welcomed boiled peanuts as a change from hardtack and beef jerky. First cultivated primarily for its oil, they were originally regarded as fodder for livestock and the poor, like so many other now-popular foods. Technically not nuts, peanuts are part of the legume family and grown underground in pods, along with peas and beans.
Peanuts started to catch on in the late 1800s when Barnum and Bailey circus wagons traveled cross country hawking “hot roasted peanuts” to the crowds. Street vendors soon followed, selling roasted peanuts from carts, and they became a staple in taverns and at baseball games. (Throwing the bags to anxious consumers became an art form.)
As with many other popular foods, peanut butter was first introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 but basically still had to be made by hand. Catching on as a favorite source of protein, commercial peanut butter made its appearance on grocers’ shelves in the late 1920s and early 30s, beginning with Peter Pan and Skippy.
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 crops 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 ago (we know for certain 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 creating the first peanut butter in 1895 for his elderly patients who had difficulty chewing other proteins.
In the U.S. peanuts are the 12th most valuable cash crop and have an annual farm value of over one billion dollars. They are an easy, low-maintenance crop, nutritious, economical, transportable and just plain delicious. Some of our more popular uses include:
Brittle + other candies
Baking and cookies
Snacks, both boiled or roasted, in-shell or no-shell
Not to be forgotten is peanut oil, which is a highly regarded form of cooking oil, due to its ability to withstand higher temperatures and the added benefit that food doesn’t hold any peanut flavor after cooking.
Sadly, due to a rise in allergies, peanuts are disappearing from sporting events and other venues, and some airlines replaced them years ago with more economical pretzels. But no matter how you enjoy them, in their simplest form, covered in chocolate or mixed into your favorite dishes, this popular snack and sandwich filling crosses all economic and age barriers. We’ve gone nutty, all right. And for those of you who are allergic, you have our heartfelt sympathy.