The following is an interview with Jon Krampner, author of Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food.
Question: Why did you write a book about the history of peanut butter?
Jon Krampner: My first two books were biographies of tormented geniuses in the arts who lapsed into obscurity because of drinking problems. Peanut butter may make you fat, but it won’t give you cirrhosis of the liver.
I settled on a pop-culture history of peanut butter because I admired books like John McPhee’s Oranges, Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, and Steve Almond’s Candyfreak. Researching the field, I was surprised to learn that no one had already done one. There are brief illustrated pamphlets for children on how peanut butter is made. There are peanut butter cookbooks for adults. Andrew F. Smith, another Columbia author, has a very good chapter on the early history of peanut butter in his book about peanuts. But that was all – I saw a niche that hadn’t been filled, and I filled it.
Q: Is peanut butter really the all-American food?:
JK: Americans aren’t the only people who like it, but almost no one likes it more than we do. The two exceptions are Canadians and the Dutch, who eat more peanut butter on a per capita basis than we do. The Dutch like it because Indonesia was their colony for centuries, and it’s just a short step from peanut-based satay sauces to peanut butter. My theory is that the Canadians picked up the habit from us. They like it more for breakfast, though, whereas Americans generally eat it for lunch.
In terms of sheer volume, though, we’re the champs: Americans eat more than a billion pounds a year. According to the Southern Peanut Growers, a trade organization, that’s enough to coat the floor of the Grand Canyon (although they don’t say to what depth). Americans have a primordial fondness for peanut butter. During the Peanut Corporation of America Salmonella debacle of 2008-09, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa thundered, “What’s more sacred than peanut butter?”
Q: What were some of the most surprising things you uncovered in your research?
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how historically over-rated George Washington Carver was. Not only did he not invent peanut butter (as William F. Buckley Jr. claimed), he wasn’t always that knowledgeable about peanuts: He said they were easy to grow. They aren’t. He said they grow best in clay soils. They don’t. He was lionized by the white establishment of his day because of what they regarded as his exemplary adherence to segregation.
Another big surprise was that the kind of peanut used to make most peanut butter now is different from when I was growing up in the 1960’s. Back then, the peanut butter industry used a combination of Spanish peanuts (which have a sweet taste because of their high oil content and are used as cocktail peanuts) and Virginia peanuts (whose low oil content balances out the Spanish). Now the primary peanut used in peanut butter is runners. They aren’t as flavorful as Spanish and Virginias, but the industry likes them because they’re more prolific (and therefore cheaper) and tend to roast more evenly.
Q: Creamy or crunchy: Which is better?
JK: I like both, although I have a slight preference for crunchy. On a percentage basis, though, creamy rules: 80 percent of the peanut butter sold in the U.S. is creamy, while only 17 percent is crunchy. The remaining three percent is that sludgy stuff where they mix the peanut butter and jelly together in the same jar.
Q: Do you like jars of peanut butter mixed with white chocolate, dark chocolate, bananas, chili peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and other exotic flavors?
As a peanut butter purist, I’m obliged to point out that what you’re referring to isn’t peanut butter— in the eyes of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it’s a peanut spread, something that contains peanut butter, but is not actually peanut butter. I’ve been known to indulge in the concoctions you refer to from time to time, but only as a guilty pleasure, kind of like the protagonist of the Larry Groce 1970’s novelty hit “Junk Food Junkie.”
Q: I’m concerned about trans fats in the hydrogenated oils used to stabilize peanut butter, so I bought no-stir peanut butter stabilized with palm oil. It says on the label it’s natural, so that’s healthier, isn’t it?
JK: No, it isn’t. Peanut butter can be stabilized two ways: by hydrogenating vegetable oils such as soy, cottonseed and canola or rapeseed (manufacturers used to use peanut oil, but that hasn’t been done in more than 50 years) or by fractionating palm oil, which involves alternately chilling and warming the oil until it can be used to prevent oil separation in peanut butter.
Although hydrogenated oils are rumored to contain large amounts of trans fats, they actually contain a minuscule amount which pose little or no health risk. Two bigger problems with hydrogenation are that 1) they muffle the peanut flavor and aroma and 2) they are, in all probability, genetically modified. Peanuts aren’t GMO (yet), but most soy and cotton crops grown in the U.S. are.
But I would still eat hydrogenated peanut butter before “natural” peanut butter with palm oil. For one thing, the word “natural” is meaningless, lacking a precise definition like the word “organic.” Secondly, palm oil is highly saturated – more so than lard, in fact, by a margin of 51 percent to 41 percent. Thirdly, palm plantations grown in the tropics to produce palm oil displace rainforest and savannah.
I prefer what’s called natural, old-fashioned or unstabilized peanut butter, even though it means you have to play with your food more. You have to refrigerate it and it’s a good idea to turn it upside down in the fridge so the peanut oils and solids can re-mix. But it has a more intense peanut flavor and aroma, doesn’t contain creepy additives and is better for the environment.