“Man cannot live by bread alone … he must have peanut butter!”
That whimsical twist on a Bible verse, frequently attributed to President James A. Garfield, actually originated with comedian Brother Dave Gardner, a sort of poor man’s Andy Griffith popular in these parts when I was growing up.
For my family, though, it’s always been something of a credo.
We take our peanut butter seriously. It’s estimated the average person in the U.S. eats about 3 pounds of peanut butter a year. My family eats that much in a month.
My daughter Olivia is particularly devoted to the spread, whether in a sandwich or simply eating it out of the jar with a spoon, a la Brad Pitt in “Meet Joe Black.”
The first decade or so of her life, she ate a peanut butter sandwich every day. We used to joke that her diet had two food groups: milk and peanut butter.
Eventually, she discovered vegetables, but Olivia still loves peanut butter. “It’s my favorite food,” she said recently.
Really, though, who doesn’t love peanut butter? Culinary god Julia Child liked it on corn chips, New York City chef Larry Forgione eats it between two potato chips, and President Gerald Ford smeared it on his English muffin every morning. I once had dinner with Michael Nesmith, of Monkees fame, and we wound up discussing peanut butter, which he declared “completely salutary.” I walked away impressed that a rock star even knew the word salutary.
Celeb devotees aside, peanut butter is the food of the people. The National Peanut Board says peanut butter accounts for about half of the U.S. edible use of peanuts — about $850 million in retail sales each year. (And Georgia is the No. 1 producer of peanuts in the United States.)
Peanut butter is popular with both children and adults because, in addition to being economical and tasting good, it’s a good source of protein and contains no cholesterol. Plus, it’s high in unsaturated fats, which help reduce LDL cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease.
It goes well with a lot of other foods, too. My wife, Leslie, loves peanut butter and bananas. Some folks eat it with apples. It makes great desserts, such as peanut butter chiffon pie and peanut butter cookies (including the Girl Scouts’ Do-si-dos), and it blends brilliantly with chocolate, whether you’re talking homemade buckeyes candy or Reese’s peanut butter cups out of the vending machine. Thanks to the remake of Disney’s “The Parent Trap,” some kids who grew up in the 1990s also like peanut butter on their Oreos.
Needing a quick supper one night back in my single days, I remembered an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” in which Sheriff Andy’s son, Opie, makes sandwiches for a runaway boy, telling his pa: “I’m makin’ him a peanut butter and bologna, peanut butter and liverwurst, and one with just peanut butter and peanut butter.”
I tried the peanut butter and bologna, and it wasn’t bad. My brother Tim perfected it by adding mayonnaise, “to make it slide down easier.”
Turns out, peanut butter and mayo sandwiches were a Depression-era Southern staple. I sent Tim a link to a Garden & Gun article about that sandwich not long ago, and he responded: “Gotta have bologna in it!”
Although mashed-up peanut paste actually dates back to the Aztecs, peanut butter as we know it today didn’t come along until the late 19th century. Many folks attribute it to George Washington Carver, who promoted more than 300 uses for peanuts, but the peanut board says credit for the actual invention of peanut butter is spread among several other folks: Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Canada, who came up with a peanut paste in 1884; Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of cereal fame), who in 1895 patented a process for creating peanut butter from raw peanuts; Dr. Ambrose Straub, who in 1903 patented a peanut-butter-making machine; and chemist Joseph Rosefield, who in 1922 invented a process for making peanut butter that kept the oil from separating by using partially hydrogenated oil.
Rosefield licensed his invention to the company that created Peter Pan peanut butter, and eventually began producing his own peanut butter under the name Skippy. The third member of peanut butter’s “big three,” Jif (currently the top seller), didn’t come along until 1958.
Jif is my choosy daughter’s favorite (it’s what her grandmother served her on peanut butter toast), so that’s what our family buys. We recently checked out the other brands, and Olivia admitted that, per the ads, Peter Pan was “peanuttier,” but it didn’t have Jif’s sweetness, and she didn’t like its aftertaste. Skippy, she found “fake-tasting.” Jif, she said, “has a better mouth feel and is the least oily.”
Whatever your taste preference, there’s probably a peanut butter for you — Jif alone makes 13 varieties, ranging from extra crunchy to omega-3 to whipped to maple.
We prefer to stick with Jif’s original creamy, but we recently tried out three of the leading “organic” peanut butter brands — Trader Joe’s Organic, Whole Foods 365 Organic and Smucker’s Natural. The main problem with all three was the way they separate — the oil sits on top, and the peanut butter is rather liquid; you have to stir quite a bit before you can do anything with it. They also have to be refrigerated after opening.
As one of the organic peanut butters dripped off a spoon like cake batter, Leslie wondered: “How would you make a sandwich with that?”
Our verdict: Whole Foods 365 wasn’t bad, but Trader Joe’s had the consistency of glue, and Smucker’s was grainy as well as oily. None of us could even finish a spoonful of it.
Whatever way you like your peanut butter, “It’s the food that defines Americans,” as my wife put it.
Our daughter found that out the hard way. A two-month study-abroad trip to Europe, where our favorite treat is hard to find, was, she recalled, “the longest I’d ever gone without peanut butter.”
Returning home from the trip, Olivia dropped her luggage and made a beeline to the kitchen cabinet, pulled out a jar of Jif and scooped out a heaping spoonful.
The look on her face said it all.
Bill King is a retired writer-editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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