By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. The other day when my helper Mr. Aime Joseph and I were at the Shaw’s Market in Cambridge, you know the one up Massachusetts Avenue at Porter Square, I felt a thought being implanted in my head, or rather it was more like some kind of brain wave zapped one of the thousands and thousands of subjects I have in my brain’s computer. All of a sudden I had a sharp pang that leads to something that one hadn’t planned to buy being put in my shopping cart, to swell the profits of Shaw’s… and the company producing the product in question. This time the wave zapping me said, “Skippy Peanut Butter…. Crunchy.”
It was the work of a moment to change my direction and return to the aisle where lived Skippy and its dogged competitors Jiff, Peter Pan, and nowadays some examples of what I call “designer foods,” in this case expensive peanut butters made to cater to the tastes of a few people with capacious pocketbooks.
I had the craving. I did what the craving told me to do (“Buy Skippy’s.”), and I had Mr. Joseph take me straight home where, in a minute or two, I was doing something else that craving phenomenon ordered me to do: “Eat some. At once. Be happy.” I did as I was bid.
“Peanut Butter” by The Marathons.
In 1961, the group called The Vibrations was in the curious position of having two concurrent hits under different names . As The Vibrations (Afircan-American soul vocal group) from Los :Angeles) they released “The Watusi.” I remember it well…
Then with a few lineup changes the group hit again, this time under the name of The Marathons with their catchy little number “Peanut Butter”. It’s this song I’m using as the background sound for today’s article. Start by going to any search engine. Then go find your blue suede shoes and that absolutely necessary hair oil for that essential young punk “do” that says, “I’m hot… and so cool. Eat your heart out.”
Here’s a sampling of the lyrics:
“Well there’s a food goin round that’s a sticky sticky goo (Peanut, Peanut Butter) Oh well it tastes so good but it’s so hard to chew (Peanut, Peanut Butter.)
Believe me, it’s lots better when you hear it, though it is a song that when played in the soda shoppe after school produces wry looks and consternation. You see, it’s too slow… and you can’t dance to. it But it’s just right to eat peanut butter by… but secretly. Cool kids ate peanut butter… but never at school and never from a lunch box. I, of course, didn’t know this until long after high school. Typical! Life is much simpler now… when all I have to do is buy it… and eat it. I think you’d agree.
What is peanut butter?
Peanut butter is a food paste primarily made from ground dry roasted peanuts. It’s popular in North America, Netherlands, United Kingdom, and parts of Asia particularly The Philippines. It is mainly used as a sandwich spread, sometimes in combination as in the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The United States and China are the leading exporters of peanut butter.
History of peanut butter.
Peanuts are native to the tropics of the Americas and natives have been mashing them into a pasty substance for hundreds of years. The Aztecs, people of discernment, fancied peanut butter’s first versions. Purists will argue that there is a difference between peanut paste and peanut butter… but the people waiting for one or the other will not stand silently by until learned folk resolve the matter. When they want their peanut butter, they want it now. Still what are experts for if not to quibble?… Eat your peanut butter first; when you’ve had your fill there will be time enough to hear what they’ve discovered.
Food historians (yes, there are such people graced by the mandatory Ph.D.) believe peoples like the Aztecs did not have smooth peanut butter; they had not yet so advanced (another good reason for their eradication by Spain); instead they had the precursor, peanut paste. The difference? Peanut paste is pure roasted peanuts. It is is harder to work with than regular peanut butter and had more of an unadulterated, somewhat bitter taste. People still ate it up… no doubt enjoying every bit.
Fast forward to George Washington Carver (1864-1943) and the many folks who learned so much from this great, great man. Now people began to experiment with their peanut concoctions… purists were not happy (purists never are)… but with additives like sugar and molasses there was no telling where these new flavors would take the humble peanut. And as Professor Carver rose, so did these peanut fanciers. One man even took his love affair with the peanut and what you could do with it as far as the White House where as President Jimmy Carter he presided from1980-1984.
As soon as scientists like Carver had their say, canny entrepreneurs entered the scene to have theirs. What they liked was not so much the sweetness of the peanut butter… but the even sweeter sound of money.
Evidence of peanut butter as it is known today came in U.S. Patent 306,727 issued in 1884 to Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Montreal, Quebec. It covered the finished product in the process of milling roasted peanuts between heated surfaces until the peanuts entered “a fluid or semi-fluid” state. As the peanut butter cooled, it set into what Edson explained as being “a consistency like that of butter, lard, or ointment.” Edson’s patent is based on the preparation of a peanut paste as an intermediate to the production of peanut candies. While Edson’s patent does not describe the modern confection we know as peanut butter, it does show the initial steps necessary for the production of peanut butter.
More importantly the celebrated J.H. Kellogg, of breakfast cereal fame, and his brother W.K. Kellogg invented their own early version of peanut butter in 1895 and 1897 with U.S. Patent 580,787 for their “Process of Preparing Nutmeal,” which produced a “pasty adhesive substance” they called “nut-butter”.
Bit by bit the peanut-butter business was growing… so that by 1914 there were several dozen brands of peanut butter on the market. One, with the invention of a process to prevent oil separation in peanut butter, was about to break out of the pack. It was the Rosenfelt Packing Company, which in 1933 began the process of obtaining trademark registration in the then 48 states and Hawaii. It took 11 years to complete this proceess. The result was Skippy peanut butter, made into an instantly known brand name thanks to the power of American advertising, including sponsorship of the Skippy Hollywood (radio) Theatre, from 1938 and “You Asked For It”, from 1951.
Skippy sales soared because the folks at Rosenfeld Packing Company had a very clear idea what they wanted: a brand that was as American, as clean cut, as tasty, as fun as the nation itself. And so Skippy grew. This is why I didn’t reach for Jiff or Peter Pan or the designer brands, wonderful though may be… I reached instead, as if by instinct, for Skippy, as I have done for a lifetime. It is always Skippy for me, chunky at that.
Thus, although I go for long stretches without any peanut butter at all, my lifelong loyalty and (a lifetime of buying) is what made conglomerate Best Foods acquire Skippy in 1955. After all, as The Marathons sang,
“All my friends tell me that they dig it the most…Peanut, Peanut Butter.”