As recently as 15 years ago, peanut butter was nothing but wholesome. It was rubbed on Mr. Ed’s teeth, slathered on sandwiches, tucked into lunch boxes across the country, and stuck to celery and covered with raisins for “ants on a log” (a treat that always sounded more awesome than it tasted). Peanut butter was the protein-filled glue of childhood and a pleasant, nostalgia-filled comfort food for adults. Dammit, peanut butter was America.
But the path of peanut butter has forked in recent years. On one side, there’s the sharp rise in deadly peanut allergies among American children, transforming the PB&J from a classic lunchtime treat into a potential cause of anaphylactic shock for classmates so afflicted. Back in 1998, the debate was already raging when the New York Times reported that some private schools in the city had banned the butter; other schools made sure to keep peanut butter and jelly sandwiches sequestered from other food. The message from parents of affected children was clear: Eat peanut butter and risk killing my child.
On the other side of the fork, however, is a peanut butter renaissance, and the market has grown fat with gourmet and organic peanut butters. And in Africa, a fortified peanut butter known as Plumpy’nut has been saving children from malnutrition since 2005. In short, when you talk about peanut butter, you are talking about life and death. The legume that giveth can also taketh away.
But all of this hubbub around peanut butter makes it very easy to forget that peanut butter is a very simple food. First invented in the late 1890s (and not by George Washington Carver — claiming he invented peanut butter is like saying Columbus “discovered” America), peanut butter was simply a mash of peanuts put through a meat grinder and marketed by a food producer named George A. Bayle, Jr. And George didn’t even invent the stuff — the actual inventor was an anonymous doctor who hoped the butter could be used as a meat substitute for the toothless. He was quickly followed by the Kellogg brothers, who used nut meals as part of their Adventist quest to create healthy vegetarian foods. Unfortunately, the Kelloggs’ peanut butter did not taste very good: They boiled their peanuts to blandness instead of roasting them. That stroke of genius finally came from a man named Edward Hasley, who sold peanut butter at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
The addition of non-peanut ingredients to the butter — including sugar, salt, and stabilizers that keep the oil and butter from separating — came later. In the U.S., peanut butters are only required to consist of 90 percent peanuts. I didn’t realize what a huge difference that other 10 percent could make until I recently sampled fresh, homemade peanut butter against the regular jarred stuff. I compared heaping spoonfuls of the peanut butter I’d made with Peter Pan brand, and that’s when I realized that while I like peanut butter, and I like peanuts, I had never really expected peanut butter to taste like peanuts before. Despite my positive, nostalgic memories of peanut butter, I considered it a spread in a category all its own, something that was invented as a food glue. But homemade peanut butter, while being a little grainier and a little thicker, really tastes like peanuts. It brings a bright peanut flavor to sandwiches, cookies, and snacks.
And if taste isn’t enough to make you start grinding up the little legumes, don’t forget about commercial peanut butter’s recent additions to the salmonella hall of fame. In 2012, peanut butter made by Sunland Inc. was linked to 42 cases of salmonella poisoning. And earlier this year, the ex-owner of Peanut Corp. faced felony charges in connection with a deadly 2008-09 salmonella outbreak, causing hundreds of people to become ill and nine deaths.
So join the peanut-butter renaissance. Homemade peanut butter is so good, I might be ready to try ants on a log again. • 29 July 2009
| Smooth Peanut Butter, adapted from the Peanut Advisory Board
|Not only is making peanut butter incredibly simple, but it’s also easy to make your own “gourmet” flavors. Sometimes I like to add a tablespoon of honey to the mix, and you could just as easily add hot pepper flakes, melted chocolate, or maple syrup.
1 1/2 cups roasted peanuts
Combine peanuts, oil, and salt in food processor. Blend until smooth.
Store in a tightly lidded container and refrigerate.