When I was in elementary school, I had a loving mother who packed me homemade lunches every day. (She's still very loving, but unfortunately I must now make my own lunch.) Alongside a hand-written note, fruit, and snack—Dunkables come to mind—was a tightly wrapped sandwich. For five years and approximately five hundred lunches, I dined on peanut butter and jelly, the gloriously simple sandwich made of carbohydrates and joy. I don't remember having a specific peanut butter brand preference, but chances are we stuck to the classics, Skippy or Jif.
After heading to college, I learned of many other types of peanut butter. There's the goopy, oil-separated kind that I still can't quite figure out how to spread; there's the mixed-with-jelly kind that a prior housemate enjoyed, much to the revulsion of the rest of us; there's the alternative nut butters that, with their rough textures and lack of sweetening, seem to miss the point of peanut butter. All of these peanut butters find their place in the pantries of families across the country. But I'd never given much thought to the history and development of all of these peanut butter cousins. Thankfully, Jon Krampner investigated.
In Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, Krampner takes us through decades of peanut butter evolution and appreciation. A PB-lover himself, Krampner came to this project as a biographer. He soon learned that the history of peanut butter was far more research-intensive than a biography, and necessitated learning about agriculture, botany, politics, nutrition, advertising, and more. The consequence of his study is a comprehensive and easy-to-read guide to the most American of sandwich spreads.
Peanut butter first came to the U.S. in the 1890's, but ground peanuts were being used in South American and West African cuisines decades earlier. The very first peanut butter was marketed in 1898 in Australia. John Harvey Kellogg (famed nutritionist and inventor of corn flake cereal) obtained the first American patent for producing peanut butter in 1897, and by the early 1900's, dozens of peanut butter brands were popping up around the country. These early butters were largely unsweetened and rather bland; many of their recipes would soon adapt to the increasingly sweet-tooth American palate.
Over the decades, the American peanut butter field has narrowed to just a few major players. These brands control relatively stable segments of the market; minor differences in spreadability and sweetness draw customer loyalty. Americans consume about 1.5 billion pounds of peanut butter each year, but actually aren't the world's largest consumers of the stuff. That award goes to the Dutch, who also have a thriving peanut butter industry. Many countries sustain their own cultures of peanut butter, such as Haiti and Germany. But many others have snubbed peanut butter, resulting in the food's image as a purely American product, for better or for worse.
Creamy and Crunchy is a smooth read. (Sorry.) Krampner provides a sort of whirlwind tour through the history and production of peanut butter, and brings us to the modern day, as the product faces obstacles of food safety and health concerns. He also gives his personal recommendations on the best kinds of peanut butter in all of the major categories: best crunchy, best creamy, best using Spanish peanuts, and so on. If nothing else, this book will certainly make you crave a spoonful of the good stuff, and fill you with tons of party-friendly peanut butter facts.
More on Peanut Butter
- Taste Test: Peanut Butter, Creamy
- Taste Test: Crunchy Peanut Butter, No-Stir
- Taste Test: Crunchy Peanut Butter, Stir
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.