An Ode to Peanut Butter

So how are you celebrating the holiday? You know…National Peanut Butter Day? (Yes, it’s a thing.) Somehow we didn’t get the day off, but that won’t stop us from honoring — and eating — our beloved sticky spread all day long.

Peanut butter is a bit of a contradiction in all the best ways: indulgent yet healthy-ish, packed with protein, magnesium, and the good kind of fat. Childlike yet all grown up, prized by discerning kindergartners and bodybuilders alike. And it’s easy to grab on the go, providing a hearty meal when you don’t have time for a hearty meal. On bagels and bananas, celery and sandwiches, cookies and pies, we can’t seem to get enough of it, and we certainly aren’t alone. Every year, Americans consume more than a billion pounds of peanut butter.

Big Top peanut butterMeanwhile, across the pond, the average European is eating…about a tablespoon. Per year.

Wait…what? Why? How? Turns out the go-to goober in every American kid’s lunchbox isn’t exactly a global phenomenon. The United States is far and away the epicenter of peanut butter mania, with Canada in a distant, distant second place. Even as international imports are Westernizing food habits around the world, peanut butter remains an odd exception. For some reason, our neighbors just don’t have the palate for peanut butter.

It makes some sense that peanut butter became such a powerhouse on this side of the world, since most of its history occurred in the Americas. Peanut plants are thought to be native to South America, and Incan and Aztec tribes were grinding peanuts into paste as early as the 15th century. In the 1880s, a Missouri doctor named Ambrose Straub developed a creamy crushed peanut paste as a nutrient-dense meal for patients without teeth. Though perhaps not the most glamorous origins, the treat managed to make its way into high-society circles.

In Gilded Age America, it became a delicacy for the wealthy, served at posh health retreats and high tea — peanut butter and watercress, anyone? Peanut butter patents popped up across the Midwest with new and innovative ways to roast, grind, and crush peanuts into tasty pastes. Dr. Straub convinced a food company to develop his product for the market, and peanut butter debuted to the masses at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. It was an instant hit.

In the following years, George Washington Carver taught Southern farmers how to embrace the peanut plant as a way to rejuvenate depleted soil, paving the way for a surplus of peanuts and a newly affordable nut butter — just in time for the Great Depression. Peanut butter sandwiches became a staple of Depression-era bread lines, and the plentiful peanut remained unrationed during wartime. World War II soldiers received bread, peanut butter, and jelly in their army meals, and when the servicemen returned stateside, they passed along the indelible combo to their families.

42898468_a0f084694eToday, you can find a jar of peanut butter in nearly 95 percent of U.S. households, and the American Peanut Council has tried to bring American-style peanut butter abroad…without much success. Beyond these borders, the majority of non-Americans find it too salty, too sweet, too sticky, too strange. As Brian Sternthal, a Northwestern University professor of marketing summed it up: “In many parts of the world, peanut butter is regarded as an unpalatable American curiosity.” Fine then! More for us.

How could such a widely beloved American snack have so little appeal elsewhere? In the end, it probably just comes down to what you grew up with. British tots happily eat Marmite, a spreadable concoction made of brewer’s yeast that most outsiders find inexplicable. In Middle Eastern kitchens you’ll find desserts made out of tahini, a savory sesame paste that most American palates have only encountered in hummus.

But here in the states, across regional, economic, and cultural lines, we all grew up eating peanut butter, and we show no signs of slowing down! It’s the ultimate comfort food: as American as apple pie and as unifying as e pluribus unum. Salty or sweet, crunchy or smooth, enrobed in chocolate or straight off the spoon, a homegrown tradition so enduring is something to celebrate.

What’s your favorite way to eat peanut butter? Slathered in Marshmallow Fluff, like the good old days? Or maybe something a little more exotic, like a spicy Haitian-style peanut butter with a hit of cayenne? We like to start with Alton Brown’s recipe for homemade peanut butter and let our imaginations run wild. Tell us your favorite classic or kooky peanut butter combos in the comments!

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