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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Peanut Butter Nuts

The taste for the real thing lives, even into adulthood


You probably know a child who has peanut butter and jelly every day. Dare to sneak in egg salad or tuna fish and you’ll never hear the end of it — this is a strictly PB &J lunch-box.

I was that child.

Not only that — I liked my peanut butter at breakfast and dinner too. In fact, if you messed with my PB &J diet, I simply refused to eat. I had eyes only for the beloved jar my mother kept on a top shelf.

Mind you, I did show some flexibility. I would, for instance, permit changes to the jelly (strawberry was a favorite; so was grape). In fact, I allowed variety in peanut butter’s sidekicks in general (a thick layer of chocolate spread was always welcome; a drizzle of honey with banana slices was nice — hey, if it was good enough for Elvis Presley, it was good enough for me).

I’m sure my mother wished more times than she can recall to make me something other than peanut butter and jelly/honey/chocolate sandwiches. But, I just couldn’t seem to get enough of this uniquely American food. I had to have it — every day. I wasn’t alone. According to the American Peanut Council, the average American child will eat 1,500 peanut butter sandwiches by the time he or she graduates from high school.

I never outgrew my love for peanut butter, and I’m not alone there either. Peanut butter may be associated with childhood, but it is adults who consume most of it, according to the American Peanut Council. Peanut butter is a staple in most American households — being one of the most frequently purchased items at the supermarket. This year, a record 800 million pounds are expected to be manufactured — more than enough to cover the floor of the Grand Canyon.

These days, it is fairly easy to locate, with the click of a mouse, fellow-worshippers of anything, from Corvairs to caramels, thanks to the Web (check out www.peanutbutterlovers.com). But pre information superhighway, it was downright challenging to find peanut butter lovers over the age of 12. I was in seventh heaven, therefore, when I met Jersey City attorney Bill Stanley at a party.

“I used to eat it out of the jar,” Bill says without any sign of apology. “My mom used to make terrific peanut butter cookies and wonderful peanut butter fudge. There was something about the creaminess of it that I couldn’t get enough of.”

Bill’s tastes, however, ran to gourmet even as a child — he disdained mere sandwiches, preferring his peanut butter on crackers and celery sticks. Still, he was a genuine fan, and one who understood my peanut butter pipe dreams better than anyone.

Whenever the two of us got together, our peanut butter discussions would take the form of gushing commemorations. We both liked creamy as opposed to chunky (children prefer creamy to chunky 60 to 40 percent, and, as a general rule, women like creamy while men like chunky).

We both liked Skippy the best (Skippy is sold more than any other peanut butter — 90 million jars every year, or about three jars every second). We were both looking for ways to re-invent peanut butter, to make it relevant to our post-lunchbox lives. Why couldn’t we turn a favorite childhood food into an elegant grownup experience?

Thus, our peanut butter kitchen collaboration project was born. We dubbed it the Great Peanut Butter Recipe Race. For years, Bill and I have spent many delightful hours developing recipes for peanut butter well beyond cookies and sandwiches (though we have come up with a peanut butter cookie that’s amazingly soft and chewy).

A couple of years ago, we perfected a moist, fragrant loaf of peanut butter bread (used for — what else? — peanut butter sandwiches). When its lovely aroma filled the house, it transported Bill back to the days he came home from school following his nose to his mother’s kitchen, where peanut butter cookies were baking.

The kid-pleasing side of us created a scrumptious dessert pizza using melted peanut butter chips as “crust,” melted white chocolate chips as “cheese,” and Reese’s peanut butter cups, sliced to resemble mushrooms, as “topping.” Dividing it up with a pizza slicer, we could barely contain our excitement. We were geniuses!

Our peanut butter pie is certifiably the fluffiest, lightest, creamiest I’ve ever tasted. Our peanut butter soup is delicious, nutritious and a cinch to prepare. Its peanut butter taste is subtle, yet strong enough to satisfy the palate of the most demanding peanut butter connoisseur. Finally, our peanut butter play dough represents the apex of peanut butter pleasure — it’s easy to make, glorious fun to play with, and edible — a winning combination, if you ask me.

Peanut butter, we learned, is the great American glue. Its many fans include actors (Jack Nicholson, Tom Selleck and Kim Basinger), singers (Billy Joel, Madonna and Cher), athletes (Olympic speed skater Bonnie Blair and baseball player David Justice), TV journalists (Dan Rather and Barbara Walters), a first lady (Barbara Bush), and a renowned chef (Julia Child). Americans have elected two peanut farmers to the nation’s highest office (Jimmy Carter and Thomas Jefferson). About 60,000 people from every state and abroad belong to the decade-old Adult Peanut Butter Lovers’ Fan Club.

According to the American Peanut Council, it takes about 850 peanuts to make one 18-ounce jar of peanut butter. Georgia is the country’s top peanut producer, followed by Texas. Though the invention of peanut butter is often attributed to George Washington Carver, peanut butter had already been developed by 1903, when Carver began his peanut research in Alabama. Carver, however, developed more than 300 uses for peanuts and is considered to be the father of modern peanut industry.

A sort of ground peanut paste was available early on — some say as early as 1890. The Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek, Mich., patented a process for preparing “nut meal” in 1895. Their peanut butter did not taste as good as today’s brands because they steamed their peanuts instead of roasting them. The Kelloggs eventually abandoned peanut butter to concentrate on cereal.

In 1922, Joseph Rosefield received the first patent for a peanut butter that was churned like milk-based butter. It was less gritty than its predecessors and would stay fresh on the shelf for a year, because the oil would not separate from the solids. Swift and Company adopted the process and began selling Peter Pan peanut butter in 1928.

In 1932, Rosefield had a dispute with Peter Pan. He left the company to produce his own peanut butter the following year, naming it Skippy. Rosefield is also credited with inventing chunky peanut butter, which is made by adding chopped peanuts to creamy peanut butter at the end of the manufacturing process. (The third big peanut butter brand, Jif, hit stores in 1958.)

There are about 16,000 peanut farmers in the United States, and about one third of their crops goes to make peanut butter. I tip my hat to those wonderful folks down South. Keep those beautiful jars coming.