“A consistency like that of an ointment…”
I’m willing to bet that you have a peanut butter story. Everyone does. Maybe not a super entertaining story, but a story nonetheless. Perhaps you always got a PB&J in your sack lunch for school field trips, or you made a peanut butter and pinecone bird feeder in kindergarten. (Extra points if it had a red yarn loop for hanging.) You may have eaten ants on a log at summer camp or smeared peanut butter on saltine crackers at your Grandma’s house. Peanut butter toast! Peanut butter cups! FLUFFERNUTTER SANDWICHES!
The point I’m driving at, albeit in an extremely roundabout way, is that peanut butter has become foundational to American childhood. You can find peanut butter in 91% of American households! 91%! I’m pretty sure that’s the first time 91% of Americans have agreed about anything, and it may be the last, but that’s depressing, so let’s move on.
The history of peanut butter begins with the Inca, who were grinding nuts into a paste hundreds of years ago. If we fast-forward to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we’ll find a new set of folks attempting to invent a ground peanut spread for the modern day.
In 1884, a Canadian chemist/pharmacist named Marcellus Gilmore Edson obtained a patent for his peanut butter. It was a wonderful food for people with dental issues, which many folks in the late 19th century apparently had. His process involved dry-roasting and grinding peanuts and sounds pretty similar to what we do today. However, he described the product as having the texture of “an ointment”, which we all know is an absolutely terrible way to sell peanut butter.
A year later, in the United States, a doctor named John Harvey Kellogg was experimenting with another peanut butter prototype. His process involved boiling the nuts, then grinding them into a paste. “Boiled nut paste” seems less than delicious, but it did have a few virtues: Like Edson’s creation, it provided valuable nutrition to the ill and the toothless. It was also a protein-rich alternative to meat.
“That’s very progressive!” you might exclaim. “Raising meat is tough on the planet and we should all eat less of it!” That’s very true, but Kellogg had a different point of view. His concern was that meat sparked carnal desires and lead to sinful sexual excess. His hope was that peanut butter could help curb these disturbing inclinations toward physical intimacy. (To put your minds at ease, I’ll say here that it has since been proven that it’s possible to eat a lot of peanut butter AND have a lot of sex. Phew.)
In less sexually frustrated peanut butter news, Dr. Ambrose Straub (That’s right… ANOTHER medical professional) patented a machine for making peanut butter in 1903. If you didn’t have access to a cool peanut butter machine, Good Housekeeping magazine had another idea: Just run peanuts through your meat grinder at home! DIY peanut butter was born.
The First World War solidified the idea that peanut butter was a food for the masses. Although there was no formal meat ration, public campaigns encouraged people to eat less meat. “Meatless Mondays” emerged, and peanut butter could help fill your family up. “Supporting the war effort” was a much more popular angle than the whole “don’t have any sex” thing. More households than ever gave peanut butter a try.
This was all fabulous, but beneath the pasty glamour, there was a dark side. If you left a pail of peanut butter on a store shelf for any length of time, the oil separated and rose to the top, where it went rancid and spoiled everything. Shopkeepers were advised to stir their peanut butter stock frequently with wooden paddles to keep the oil integrated. This was a total pain in the butt, and the shopkeeper’s arms got super tired. Something had to be done!
Luckily, by 1921, a man had solved the peanut oil separation fiasco. Joseph Rosefield filed a patent for a process called partial hydrogenation which converted the oil in nut butters from being liquid at room temperature to being semi-solid at room temperature. This meant that the oil would not separate! Peanut butter could remain a harmonious whole! Shopkeepers and peanut butter lovers everywhere rejoiced.
We talked a lot about childhood at the beginning of this article, so I’d like to discuss one final innovation that allowed peanut butter to become the kid-friendly household staple it is today: In 1928, sliced bread was invented, and while many things since then have been “the best thing since sliced bread,” none of them have been better. Without the hassle of cutting bread into pieces, kids could venture into the kitchen, ravenous from the exertions of childhood, and MAKE THEIR OWN PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH. Nothing would ever be the same…