Creamy & Crunchy: Uncovering the Politics of Peanut ButterPublished: March 06, 2013 in Knowledge@Wharton
Most adults have experienced those moments in the grocery aisle or at the kitchen table when they realize that a once-cherished favorite snack from childhood just doesn't taste the way it used to.
Time and expanding palates can be blamed for some of this. But some foods taste different because they are different. An entire mini-category of books -- Dan Koeppel's Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World and Jennifer 8. Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, to name a couple -- has sprung up to chart the corporate machinations, cultural mores and political turmoil that in many cases have become the main influencers of what and how we eat. In Creamy & Crunchy, author Jon Krampner explores how the aforementioned factors and others have shaped one of the more ubiquitous treats from our childhood lunchboxes: peanut butter.
Krampner begins his history with the origins of both peanuts and peanut butter, pointing out that while the spread's use in the United States only dates back to the late 1800s, it's not an entirely original concoction. About 3,000 years ago, South American Indians were grinding peanuts into a "sticky paste" and mixing it with cocoa, and people living in West Africa have been eating ground peanuts for hundreds of years. Very few peanuts -- which are legumes having more in common with beans or peas than walnuts or almonds -- were grown in the United States at the time of the Civil War, Krampner writes, but that changed with the invention of better harvesting equipment.
Not all peanuts are created equal. There are four main types of peanuts grown in the United States -- runners, Virginias, Valencias and Spanish peanuts. In writing about the different varieties, Krampner explains one way that peanut butter today is not quite the same as it was in its early years -- or even as recently as 40 years ago: It used to be made primarily from Virginias and Spanish peanuts. But Krampner describes how runners -- which are easier to harvest and make for a more consistent taste across batches -- became the legume of choice as peanut butter moved from a product dominated by small, regional brands that customers bought from bulk bins at the general store to one typified by a few national brands and bought in plastic jars off supermarket shelves.
And then there is the matter of who invented peanut butter. The book notes that it's not entirely clear who the first person was to create a spread from ground and roasted peanuts. It might have been John Harvey Kellogg, one of the founders of the cereal empire. But it could have been George Bayle, the owner of a now defunct St. Louis snack food company. One person it most definitely wasn't, according to the author, was George Washington Carver, the African-American scientist who Krampner suggests became the inventor of legend because the white-owned mainstream media liked promoting a black man who was seen as deferential toward whites.
Krampner is exhaustive in his reporting of peanut butter's rise to pantry staple and the various skirmishes in the battle for dominance in the industry, with Peter Pan emerging as the number one brand, only to lose that title to Skippy, which subsequently relinquished it to today's top seller, Jif. For example, he goes so far as to track down George Bayle's great-granddaughter in an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to learn more about his peanut butter--making exploits. And Krampner also interviewed a number of people who formerly worked in the plants and front offices of the "Big Three" brands.
Tough Nut to Crack
But one nut he was unable to crack was to actually get inside a plant owned by one of those companies or to talk to current executives from the corporations about where they see peanut butter going in the future. Rattled by bad press from salmonella outbreaks and other past reports of product contaminations, ConAgra (owner of Peter Pan), Unilever (which owned Skippy until its recent sale to Hormel) and J.M. Smucker (owner of Jif) all declined (or outright ignored) Krampner's efforts to include them in the book. While he dutifully documents all the unreturned phone calls and emails that went nowhere, it's a glaringly absent piece of the peanut butter puzzle.
To be sure, those peanut butter marketers and magnates might have had stories to tell as interesting as that of Frank Ford, the self-described conservative guy who created Deaf Smith, the precursor to the Arrowhead Mills brand that marked a rebirth in "natural" (i.e., the kind you have to stir) peanut butter and gained a following among the 1970s hippie community. Like its successor, Arrowhead Mills, Deaf Smith was one of the few peanut butters to be made with Valencia peanuts, which are smaller and sweeter, but harder to grow than the other varieties grown in the U.S. Then there's Herb Dow, the film editor whose efforts to create the first "gourmet" peanut butter (complete with a square jar) were felled by the dot-com crash of 2000. Krampner also interviews nonprofit groups and others working to use peanut butter to fight hunger in developing nations.
It's unfortunate that the author didn't try to incorporate more of these "peanut butter personalities," possibly by expanding passages that include interviews from some of the few independent and regional companies that still make it or by going into more detail about the international brands of peanut butter. (One interesting fact: Consumption in Canada is actually higher, per capita, than that of the United States.) Instead, the book is padded to 298 pages with recipes that are mostly curiosities and a throwaway chapter on music celebrating peanut butter. Spoiler alert: There isn't much, although Elvis was a famous fan.
But Creamy & Crunchy is buoyed by Krampner's obvious affection for his subject. Among the recipes included in the book is one of his own for a sandwich dubbed, "The Simon and Garfunkel," involving a whole wheat bagel, peanut butter, mozzarella cheese, mushrooms and garlic, among other ingredients. At the back of the book, he includes his personal rankings of the best brands from various categories (among them, creamy, crunchy, international brands and the best made from the various types of peanuts).
While Creamy & Crunchy won't answer every question about peanut butter, it will likely spark a desire to crack open a jar and start spreading.