Shelling fact from fiction on the topic of peanut butter
On paper, you might think Jon Krampner a bit of a peanut-butter dilettante.
He grew up in New York, went to college in California and wrote his first two books on a pair of “tormented geniuses in the arts who lapsed into obscurity because of drinking problems.” (His description.)
So what could the biographer of a dissolute TV-drama pioneer and a forgotten Broadway actress have to say about peanut butter, that iconic American foodstuff that’s so deeply entwined in the history of the American South?
As it turns out, the man behind the dryly informative “Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food” (Columbia University Press, $27.95) knows a great deal about the goober goop that is the preferred bedfellow of grape jelly and a pillar of our native economy.
For years, Georgia has been the nation’s No. 1 state for producing peanuts, a fascinating legume that thrives in the sandy soil of the Coastal Plain and bears its hull-encased kernels underground.
More or less coinciding with the arrival of the boll weevil, the discovery of peanut butter helped elevate the lowly goober pea into the region’s dominant cash crop, thereby deposing mighty King Cotton.
“When I was a kid - and maybe my memory is playing tricks with me - the only two foods I ate on a regular basis were peanut butter and hamburgers,” Krampner recalls in an interview. “Actually my mother recently reminded me that I used to put peanut butter on spaghetti, too.”
After a measly response to his “The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television” (which sold about 1,000 copies) and “Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley” (which sold 3,000), the former journalist decided to apply his investigative talents to a more familiar topic.
Setting out to chronicle the spread of the creamy and the crunchy, he envisioned a lively literary tale that would do for peanut butter what Steve Almond’s “Candyfreak” did for chocolate bars and Mark Kurlanksy’s “Cod” did for the flaky white fish.
“I thought, ‘Oh, God, biography is such a difficult genre! I’ll do something easy. I’ll just do a fun pop history of peanut butter,” Krampner said. “And as it turned out, in addition to having to learn about the production and history of peanut butter, I had to learn about agriculture, botany, nutrition, geology, organic chemistry, food contamination, allergies, patents and trademarks, antitrust laws, the history of the South, advertising, industrial design, statistics, and the federal rule-making process. And on top of that, I still had to do biographical profiles anyway. So when I thought this was going to be easy, I was an idiot.”
Indeed, this intrepid peanut pundit dug deep into his subject.
He tasted jar after jar and ranked them by preference - choosily choosing Arrowhead Mills Creamy Organic and Trader Joe’s Crunchy Valencia with Roasted Flaxseeds as best-tasting overall.
He traveled to Georgia, interviewed peanut farmers in the Florida panhandle and wrote near-definitive histories of America’s big three brands: Jif, Skippy and Peter Pan.
He debunked the well-trod myth that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, making a case it was either cornflake creator John Harvey Kellogg or St. Louis snack-food maker George Bayle. (Krampner ultimately goes with Bayle, since Kellogg’s product was made from steamed goober peas and probably had little in common with today’s toasty-tasting spread.)
Krampner never blanches from the truth, either. The plight of black farmers, the salmonella outbreaks, the peanut industry’s 12-year battle with the FDA to try to sell peanut butter that was less than 90 percent pure, the rise and fall of the prolific ‘70s variety known as the Florunner: He plows up the sordid along with the sunny.
“I approached it in a purely celebratory spirit, but as I worked on it, the journalist in me kicked in,” Krampner said. “So I basically wound up showing the bitter with the sweet.” Krampner also discovered why so much of today’s peanut butter smacks so little of the spread of his youth.
While much of the peanut butter of yore was crafted from flavorful Valencia and Spanish varieties, most of today’s peanut products are mass-produced from the more prolific and profitable runner - making the runner “the very essence of a corporate peanut,” Krampner writes pithily.
In a case of total immersion, the author even made his own peanut butter, from seeds he planted in front of his Los Angeles apartment.
“I harvested the peanuts. I shelled them. I dried them. And I went to the natural-food store on the corner and ground them. And by the time I did all that, I had about enough to put on one cracker,” he said wistfully. “But it was the best peanut butter I ever had.” Krampner ought to know.
With “Creamy & Crunchy,” he establishes himself as a formidable authority on America’s best-loved sandwich spread.
“Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food” By Jon Krampner Columbia University Press, 298 pages, $27.95
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