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I’ve never met Jon Krampner, which is lucky for him because if I ever did meet him I might very well kiss him on the mouth.

Why?

Because I really love his new book, Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, just out from Columbia University Press.

I say this not just as someone who eats a tremendous amount of peanut butter, but as someone who reads a fair number of books. Creamy & Crunchy has what every great cultural history should: a knack for telling the larger story of our country through our shared artifacts.

Krampner’s history of peanut butter is exhaustive without ever getting dry. He lays the facts on thick but keeps the tone playful. It’s one of those books that’s almost shockingly addictive, where you find yourself thinking: Holy crap is peanut butter fascinating! (Note: this is true even for those loonies who turn up their noses at a dollop of Jif.)

Krampner was gracious enough to answer a few questions about C&C for TNB, knowing that many of our readers consume their own weight in peanut butter each month.

 

How’d you get started with this project?

My first two books were biographies of tormented geniuses in the arts who lapsed into obscurity because of drinking problems, 1950’s live TV drama producer Fred Coe and Broadway star Kim Stanley. I wanted to write about something more cheerful this time. 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 a book about candy you may be familiar with. I thought it would be easier than writing biography, but that was before I realized I’d have to learn about agriculture, botany, nutrition, geology, organic chemistry, food contamination, allergies, patents and trademarks, antitrust law, the history of the American South, advertising, industrial design, statistics and the federal rule-making process. And I still had to do biographical profiles anyway.

 

What was the biggest surprise you encountered in your research?

That George Washington Carver is a fraud. He didn’t invent peanut butter (which William F. Buckley Jr. believed; then again, Buckley was a conservative Republican). On top of that, CARVER DIDN’T KNOW THAT MUCH ABOUT PEANUTS! He said they were easy to grow; they aren’t. He said they grow best in clay soil: they don’t. Carver was an Uncle Tom who was lionized by the white establishment of his day because of his cheerful compliance with segregation. I feel almost sacrilegious bringing this up, but someone’s gotta tell Americans the truth.

A secondary surprise was that while I wasn’t paying attention, the peanut butter industry changed the kind of peanut used to make peanut butter. When I was growing up in Brooklyn’s Park Slope in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s (this was before it got hip), peanut butter was made from a combination of Spanish peanuts, which are very flavorful because of their high oil content, and Virginias, whose lower oil content balances out the Spanish. But starting around 1970, the peanut butter industry switched to runners, perhaps the least tasty peanut variety grown in the U.S. The industry likes them because they’re cheaper, more prolific and roast more evenly. If you’re middle-aged and think peanut butter tasted different when you were a kid, you’re not a rank sentimentalist: you’re right.

 

It seems like the peanut butter industry kind of mirrors the confectionary industry—that it’s dominated by a couple of huge corporate brands.

The confectionary industry, the publishing industry – just about any industry you can think of. It’s my theory that lawyers in the Department of Justice’s anti-trust division spend their days flinging paper airplanes around and looking at internet porn instead of breaking up monopolies.

Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan and maybe Smart Balance and Planters have the lion’s share of the market. And market concentration exists at just about every level of the peanut butter industry: In the 1940’s, there were between 400,000 and 500,000 peanut farmers in the U.S.; today there are 7,000 or 8,000. In the 1970’s, there were 70 or 80 companies that remove the shells from peanuts; today, there are fourteen, and two of them shell nearly three quarters of the American peanut crop. There used to be small peanut butter factories scattered across the South; most of them have closed, unable to compete with the majors. We’ve lost a lot of local and regional brands like Toner’s Radiant Roast in Denver, Robb-Ross in Iowa, and Meador’s Old-Timey in South Carolina.

 

As a Jif lover, I was distraught to learn that it was a quarter lard at its inception. I’m assuming it’s healthier now, right? Right??

Right, with an asterisk. Because of a twelve-year foodfight between the Food and Drug Administration and the peanut butter industry from 1959 to 1971, anything calling itself peanut butter is now legally required to have a minimum of 90 percent peanuts. It figures the author of Candyfreak would like Jif – traditionally, it’s been the sweetest of the Big 3. One way it is worse now (among all other hydrogenated peanut butters), though, is that it’s GMO. Peanuts haven’t been genetically modified yet, but the soybean and cottonseed oil used to stabilize it have been. Another reason to go natural or old-fashioned.

 

Give us a quick list of the best indie peanut butters out there.

My two favorites are Arrowhead Mills Creamy Organic and Trader Joe’s Crunchy Valencia with flax seeds. Both are made from Valencias, the sweetest of the four peanut varieties grown in the U.S., and the rarest: they’re only one or two percent of the U.S. peanut crop. Sadly, both were made at the Sunland Plant in Portales, NM , and are not available now. Koeze Cream-Nut, made from Virginia peanuts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is tasty and has an unusual coarse or grainy texture. The crunchy made by the Krema Nut Co. of Columbus, Ohio, uses Spanish peanuts and is the platonic ideal of crunchy. (There’s also a larger company, the Krema Group, in Columbus. Their stuff is good, but KNC crunchy is extraordinary. Most crunchy peanut butter is just creamy with a few chunks plinked in. But KNC creamy is basically all chunks, mortared together with a bit of creamy.)

 

Okay, final question. As the dad of toddlers, I’ve got to ask: Peanut allergies: legit concern or modern parent paranoia?

Absolutely legit. In the industrialized Western world, food allergies in general and peanut allergies in particular have been climbing at a remarkable rate. (Interestingly, food allergies are not a problem in the Third World – maybe they’re karmic payback for colonialism.) In any case, the rate of peanut allergies among American children more than tripled between 1997 and 2008, going from 0.4 percent to 1.4 percent. That may look pretty small—until it’s your kid.

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Steve Almond STEVE ALMOND (www.stevenalmond.com.) is the author of three short story collections, most recently God Bless America.

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