Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Chronicle of Peanuts

The average American boy eats 1500 peanut butter sandwiches before reaching the age of eighteen. It may be peanut butter and jelly or a dozen other spreads including honey, jam or preserves. Might even be peanut butter and banana, which isn’t uncommon in southern states. In the early 1930s peanut butter and mayonnaise spread on saltines was popular in Georgia, and all of us have probably known a goofball or two who liked their peanut butter in some other disgusting mix. At the bottom of it all is the huge popularity of this American tradition, one that has its roots south of the border.

Despite the name and what many people assume, peanuts are not nuts but legumes. They were known in South America, likely Brazil, as early as 950 BC. The Incas grew peanuts and made them into a paste, though it’s doubtful their peanut paste was anything like Skippy. Peanuts reached the United States via Africa, where they were carried by early explorers of South America. From Africa they were later traded to Spain, and from there to the American colonies. Commercial peanut farming began in North Carolina around 1818 and by the 1840s had spread to Virginia. During the Civil War years peanuts were being made into a kind of porridge, experience proving that peanuts were a valuable source of protein and perfect for soldiers in camp or on the march.

Crop wise, one acre of peanuts yields 2860 pounds of peanuts, enough to slather up 3000 peanut butter sandwiches. The typical jar of peanut butter that we buy in the supermarket requires about 850 peanuts. Compared to others, Americans are rather singular in their taste for this spread. It doesn’t enjoy great popularity outside the US, but Americans eat 700 million pounds of it a year, which is about three pounds per person, and an amount large enough to cover the entire floor of the Grand Canyon.

In 1890 a doctor in St Louis came up with the idea of packaging peanut paste for people with bad teeth. At the time it was selling for six cents a pound. A few years later the Kellogg brothers patented a process for making peanut butter with steamed peanuts. The Universal Exposition of 1904 introduced peanut butter to the world. By 1922 Joseph Rosefield was churning peanut butter in California and received the first patent for a spread that could stay fresh for up to one year. One of the first companies to adopt Rosefield’s process was Swift & Company, later renamed Peter Pan. A few years after that Rosefield founded the Skippy label and in 1934 produced the first crunchy-style peanut butter. Proctor & Gamble got into the game in 1955 and in 1958 introduced Jif. Now owned by the J.M. Smucker Company, Jif is made in the world’s largest peanut butter plant, producing 250,000 jars a day.

Peanut butter is made with oven-roasted peanuts, most of them grown in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Once roasted the peanuts go through a process of rapid air cooling to prevent further cooking. The outer skin is removed with belts or brushes and the waste (skins and hearts) from this process is passed on to farmers and manufacturers of bird food. In the factory the peanuts are then split, cleaned and sorted before going into a grinder where they are pulverized before other ingredients such as salt and sugar are added. A stabilizer is used to prevent the oil and peanut butter from separating.

Even skunks like peanut butter, though the video clip below shows it’s sometimes a risky business. As for me, I’m getting tired of just thinking about it, so will head to the kitchen for a crunchy-smooth peanut butter and dill pickle sandwich.


  1. Wonderful post!!! One of the best sandwiches that I fed my children when they were little was peanut butter and marshmellow cream. They still talk about it. Thanks for all of the info about the uses of peanut butter. Cute video of the skunk with his head caught in the peanut butter jar.

  2. My name is not on the list of having eaten 1500 P&J sandwiches by the age of 18. Although I like jelly and like peanutbutter covered in chocolate, somehow the two never fueled my childhood adventures as sandwiches--which probably explains something about me. And bananas; not on that list either. And the two together? No thanks, Elvis.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America