Note: Lee Zalben, a.k.a. "the Peanut Butter Guy" is the creator of the Peanut Butter & Co., a New York sandwich shop with a national line of nut butters. Every week he'll chime in with some nuttiness.

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[Photograph: National Peanut Board]

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Did you know that peanut plants sprout yellow flowers? [Flickr: shel_bel]

The title of this post might be a little ambitious, but for something that is such a big part of American culinary history, there sure are many questions about peanuts.

To start, you might find it interesting to know that peanuts are technically not a "nut" at all, but a legume. Nuts tend to grow on trees, while peanuts, like many beans, grow underground.

Maybe you already knew that.

But unlike a lot of foods that grow underground, the peanut pods aren't part of the root system of the plant. The peanuts grow from shoots that spring out of the base of the plant and burrow beneath the soil. Peanut plants produce small yellow flowers and when the flowers start to wilt, you know it's time to harvest them.

While China and India grow more peanuts than any other country, peanuts grown in the United States are widely recognized as the gold standard by which all other peanuts should be judged. More peanutty wisdom, after the jump.

While peanuts are grown in a number of states including Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, and even as far west as New Mexico, over 60 percent of peanuts grown in the United States come from Georgia, Alabama, and Texas.

There are four different varieties of peanuts:

  • Runners: The most commonly planted type of peanut. Most peanut butter is made from these.
  • Virginias: The most common peanut sold "in the shell," and therefore usually referred to as "ballpark peanuts."
  • Spanish: These tend to be smaller and uniformly round, which makes them prized in the candy business. They can easily be manipulated by candy-making equipment and incorporated into confections. They also have a high oil content, making them especially rich-tasting.
  • Valencias: These peanuts can grow in drier climates than other varieties; especially prevalent in New Mexico.

The peanuts have a very interesting history.

The Incas were apparently the first people to cultivate peanuts. Explorers and traders took them from South America to Spain and Portugal, then onto Asia and Africa. It's believed that from Africa they made their way back to North America (although some evidence that peanuts made their way as far north as Mexico in the pre-Colombian era). North American Indians made a paste or gruel of corn and groundnuts (another name for peanuts) as a subsistence food, and farmers in the Southeast United States began large scale farming of peanuts in the early 1900s.

So, eaters, consider this your peanut primer. Still got questions? Throw them out there and I'll jump in with answers.

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