A Brief History of Peanut Butter (And How It Changed My Life)

April 07, 2021
red and orange  jars of peanut butter with a background of brown geometric pattern
Art by Kim Salac

“OIL SEPARATION IS NATURAL—JUST STIR AND ENJOY” For those who also love peanut butter, you might recognize this informative directive from the lid of Smuckers’ Natural Peanut Butter, printed in white font, encircling a recipe for Peanut Butter Butterscotch Mounds. 

The first time I ever bought this brand of PB, I thought, "why are they yelling?" and immediately after, I imagined that the 1-800-number on the label must have had gotten so much heat from people who weren’t expecting their peanut butter to separate that the company felt it necessary to spell it out, right there on the lid. 

It makes me smile every time now, that Smuckers would think to ease people’s anxieties preemptively: “Look, I know you all are used to the hydrogenated stuff. Just so you know, when you open this jar, things will look kind of funny. It’s okay—it’s going to be okay. Just stir and enjoy. (Also, PLEASE don’t call the 1-800-number).” 

I knew to expect it would be oily in there—they did a good job of overpreparing me, with their loud, yet oddly comforting label. But the way this prompted me to normalize the separation I experience—the things I have to do to stir my messy, crunchy life up and enjoy it—that’s something I didn’t expect to learn from a bossy jar of peanut butter.  

 

The way this prompted me to normalize the separation I experience—the things I have to do to stir my messy, crunchy life up and enjoy it—that’s something I didn’t expect to learn from a bossy jar of peanut butter.  

 

You’ve gotten a glance at what’s on the lid thus far, directives and recipes galore, (and a little peek into the messiness of my life, too), but there’s a whole lot else under that steel lid to learn from: messy, chunky, rich, at times quirky, and revolutionary history. 

Take this for example: in the mid-1890s, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the cornflake and creator of Kellogg Cereal, also happened to be the first ever patentor of peanut butter in its more primary form. And oh, by the way: he also was an avid anti-sex addiction advocate, Kellogg thought peanut butter and other meat substitutes might “cure” sex addiction (who knew, right?). Kellogg’s anti-sex addiction cause, fueled not just one, but several of his most infamous, and arguably (probably intentionally) boring, inventions. Luckily, Kellogg’s work preceded World War I, a time when folks turned to peanut butter to keep them satiated in the face of hunger. But this certainly isn’t the whole story of the dearly beloved, deeply American household staple. 

Pre-dating Kellogg’s contribution to American culture and modern peanut butter is George Washington Carver. Disheartened by cotton monocropping and subsequent soil depletion in Alabama, Carver sought a crop that would be restorative to the soil, to Black farmers, and to the American South: the peanut. Carver’s work was integral to the environmental justice movement; his methodology looked to the land to solve the problems constraining the lives and livelihoods of Black farmers, creating sustainable options for the seemingly optionless. Loving and respecting the land, through resourcefulness and sustainability, would offer Black farmers—let alone the rest of the country and world—the gifts of option, the gifts of revolution, and the gifts of peanuts.

 

Loving and respecting the land, through resourcefulness and sustainability, would offer Black farmers—let alone the rest of the country and world—the gifts of option, the gifts of revolution, and the gifts of peanuts.

 

And so, this is the backdrop from which I would come to love natural peanut butter. It’s the food of option, and of sticky cultural complexity. For some, peanut butter represents the ways people hunkered down during times of scarcity, or the ways they challenged sex addiction, and the story of restoration for Black farmers and the land of this country.

And for those of us with too many options (Crunchy or Smooth? Grad School or Gap Year?), the simple directive inscribed on its lid is very much welcome. On its own, the message is a plain instruction, but given the deep and diverse history of peanuts and peanut butter, “OIL SEPARATION IS NATURAL—JUST STIR AND ENJOY” reminds me of this: there were people in the world who have laid the groundwork for me to be able to just stir and enjoy, and for them, for the land, I am deeply grateful.

 

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