Whether you are a chunky or creamy fan, peanut butter and its many forms comprise one of America’s favorite foods. On average, Americans eat more than six pounds of peanut products every 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 every year.
The peanut plant could be traced back to Peru and Brazil in South America around 3,500 years back. European explorers first discovered peanuts in Brazil and saw its value, taking them back to their respective countries, where it was somewhat slow to catch on but became popular in Western Africa. (Along with the French just never really got it.)
History informs us that it was not until the early 1800s that peanuts were grown commercially in the USA, and clearly revealed up at the dinner table of foodie president Thomas Jefferson, likely in the kind of peanut soup, a delicacy in Southern regions. After all, Jefferson was an enthusiastic gardener who lived in Virginia. First cultivated chiefly for its oil, they were initially regarded as fodder for livestock as well as the bad, like so many other now-popular foods. Technically not nuts, peanuts are a 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 audiences. Street vendors soon followed, selling roasted peanuts out of carts, and they became a staple in taverns and at baseball games. (Throwing the bags to worried customers 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 had to be produced 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, beginning in 1903 with his landmark study. He recommended that farmers rotate their cotton plants with peanuts which replenished the nitrogen content in the soil that cotton depleted. In his inaugural research, he discovered countless uses for the humble peanut.
Although it’s believed that the Inca Indians in South America ground peanuts centuries past (we know for certain they weren’t spreading it on white bread with grape jelly), credit is generally awarded to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of corn flakes fame) for producing the initial peanut butter in 1895 because of his elderly patients who had difficulty chewing other 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, inexpensive, weatherproof and just plain delicious. Some of our more popular applications include:
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 additional advantage that food doesn’t hold any peanut taste after cooking.
Sadly, due to a rise in allergies, peanuts are disappearing from sporting events and other places, and some airlines replaced them years ago with more economical pretzels. But however you enjoy them, in their simplest form, coated in chocolate or mixed into your favorite dishes, this popular snack and sandwich filling crosses all economic and age barriers. We have gone nutty, all right. And for those of you who are allergic, you have our heartfelt sympathy.