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Sunday, January 22, 2012


From the Vault Dept.: One of those can-you-do-something-with-this-topic? pieces, it's a vintage Schenectady Gazette story I wrote about the history and joy of peanut butter. Reminding us that there were peanut butter-enhanced candy wars a dozen years ago!


Photo by Piccolo Namek
Used under a GNU Free Documentation License

THERE ARE A hundred calories in a tablespoon of peanut butter. Seventy-five of them (I'm reminded by a nagging nutritional guide) from the sheer fat content.

As it happens, I navigate the peanut butter jar with a tablespoon, a habit developed after I heard a radio program that sternly told me to use only a spoon with the stuff.

So when I'm putting a sandwich together I can count exactly how many calories I’m accumulating. In other words, I’m aware of it, I’m taking responsibility for it. If you don’t like it, lump it. (Hardly an appropriate castigation when discussing peanut butter, however.)

And if you don’t like it, you’ll also want to avoid membership in the Adults-Only Peanut Butter Lovers Fan Club, which has a roster of about 40,000. And a potential for plenty more when you consider that peanut butter is consumed by 83 percent of all Americans.1

I do try to surround the snacktime sandwich with “natural” items, lathering the spread on wheat bread and pairing it with fruit juice-sweetened jellies. A brief, too-hearty flirtation with Marshmallow Fluff sickened me of that combination forever (I won’t even eat my former-girl-scout wife’s campfire s’mores).

But at heart I’m still spreading Skippy on one slice of Tip Top bread with a thick purple layer of Welch’s on the other. I’m not alone: a well-known food writer from this part of the country insists that heaven on earth is – get ready for this – peanut butter sandwiched with Cape Cod potato chips and chocolate fudge sauce.

Malcolm Forbes preferred his peanut butter with bacon. There also are advocates for pairing the stuff with Vidalia onions or lettuce and mayo. George Will eats a sandwich of peanut butter and sweet pickles. And Elvis liked to mush bananas into a peanut butter sandwich and fry it in butter.

Obviously, the stuff is a chameleon, suiting itself to a range of items that can include celery or chocolate (but probably not both).

Here are some more statistics from Country Living, which came up with the 83 percent quoted earlier: by the end of high school, the average American kid has eaten 1500 PB&J sandwiches. And Americans eat enough PB every year to coat the floor of the Grand Canyon.

Commercial peanut production began in this country about two centuries ago as a source of food and oil. Although roasted peanuts flourished as a snack throughout the 19th century, it was an unknown doctor in St. Louis who had the idea of mashing the bean in a kitchen grinder in 1890. He was developing a source of protein for the toothless.

George A. Bayle, Jr., a food products company owner, packaged and sold peanut butter for 6 cents a pound. His early cans of the stuff were inscribed “A sandwich a day keeps your children at play.”

George Washington Carver’s innovations and newly-developed machinery helped make harvesting and shelling easier, and peanut butter went into mass production at the beginning of this century, first in a natural state with a thick layer of oil on top, then, beginning in the 1920s, with hydrogenated peanut oil to keep it from separating.

During World War II, GIs were sent peanut butter and it’s speculated that their taste for it was passed on to a baby-boom generation of kids. But it’s still adults who consume the majority of the stuff.

In 1955, Proctor & Gamble Co. bought out Big Top peanut butter, a regional company, and renamed the product Jif. They were the first to sell it nationally.

The recipe became more complicated as sugars and stabilizers were added, along with that hydrogenated oil. That’s where the cholesterol and some of the calories live, however, so there’s been a recent move back to the original – and that layer of oil. Buy a bottle of Deaf Smith’s2 and you’ll see what I mean. My wife experimented with turning the jar upside down on the shelf, which only serves to turn the oil upside down. It still waits at the top. Best thing to do is attack the mixture with your spoon and recombine it, then keep the jar in the refrigerator. It only separates at room temperature.3

Even better, grind your own in a so-equipped supermarket deli or health food store. It takes a long time for the oil to rise – longer than it takes me to polish off a container.

According to Mitch Head, executive director of the Peanut Advisory Board in Atlanta, peanut butter “has survived all the food fads in American, from tofu to sushi.” Peanuts are a half-billion dollar-a-year crop in Georgia, and the 12th-largest cash crop in the country.

Head suggests that peanut butter stays popular because of price and convenience. And because it’s good for you, especially if you avoid the cholesterol-rich varieties. He observes that Americans polished off 800 million pounds of peanut butter last year. That’s 3.3 pounds per person.

And did you know that it takes 548 peanuts to make a 12-ounce jar of spread? Or that an acre of peanuts can be ground into 30,000 peanut butter sandwiches?

Half of the country’s peanut crop (4 billion pounds each year) is turned into paste; the rest becomes oil, salted snacks, or candy.

If you’re fond of the peanut butter/chocolate combination, take a ringside seat for the upcoming Peanut Butter Candy Wars. M&M/Mars Inc. has created Peanut Butter Snickers, which are filled with PB instead of caramel. These are intended to compete against Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and will hit the market in May.

Hershey Foods Corp., which makes the Reese’s product, is not making any comments on the matter. They fired their own successful salvo a few years back with Reese’s Pieces, going hard up against M&Ms and receiving a product-selling boost from the endorsement in the movie “E.T.”

In the past two years, Hershey’s has brought out peanut butter cups in three sizes and added a crunchy version. Chocolate bars are a $5 billion market, and Reese’s has more than 11 percent of it. Their biggest competition? Don’t laugh – it’s Snickers, of course. But there have been indications that Reese’s may go over the top.

Hence the Peanut Butter Snickers. M&M/Mars also has plans to introduce PBMax, with peanut butter on a cookie that’s topped with cookie crunch and rolled in milk chocolate. They’re also testing their own peanut butter version of an M&M.

Don’t be surprised if you start hearing new things from an old reliable. Leaf Inc., makers of the Clark bar, is going to introduce PB Crunchers, a round peanut crunch ball covered with chocolate.

Maybe the biggest reason for the endurance of peanut butter is its independence. It’s the feline of foodstuffs: it doesn’t need anything or anyone to enhance it, but it makes friends easily.

I collect my plastic containers and trot down to the health food store for a weekly fill. Beside me, the coffee people are filling bags with pounds of their addiction. I look over at them and grin to myself superciliously. I’m not hooked on peanut butter. Not me. I could easily live without it. I just choose not to. Okay?

–April 25, 1990

1. Sadly, the club seems to have vanished. It was started in 1988 by the Peanut Advisory Board, media arm of the Southern Peanut Growers, who now occupy what once was the club’s website.

2. Introduced in the 1970s, Deaf Smith's Peanut Butter was a favorite of health food fans for many years; sadly, Arrowhead Mills no longer makes the stuff, and an online petition seems to have fallen on deaf (no Smith's) ears.

3. I have since reconsidered this advice. I believe that peanut butter should be consumed quickly enough to require no refrigeration. Keep the jar prominently displayed in the kitchen, and flip it a couple of times a day. This will confuse the oil, which won’t know where to settle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this piece so much I had peanut butter with my apple at lunch.