We are taught from a young age about the many heroes and heroines from ancient, national, cultural, and regional history. My fourth-grade year was devoted entirely to Alabama history—minus the one project during which I had to dress up and present myself as the almost unknown president, Zachary Taylor. One of the many stories repeatedly driven into my memory was about George Washington Carver and his “discovery” of peanut butter. This, like many stories originating around protagonists, was slightly exaggerated.
Peanuts have become a staple in America, especially the South. Childhood sandwiches, baseball games, and even peanut-infused whiskey have all impacted my life tremendously while growing up in Alabama. Planted over 150 years ago to replenish the nutrient depleted, cotton-soaked soil of the Reconstruction Era South, peanuts have given way to almost 500 products and probably still counting. Poor farmers and low-income families ate peanuts and other calorically dense food because of its high protein and low carbohydrate content. Elderly and sick patients found peanut butter to be palatable and nutritious as well. Peanuts quite literally may have saved many lives in post-Confederate states more than anything else contributed during this time – but that may be taking it too far.
Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Canada originally patented peanut “paste”—the beginning of modern peanut butter— in 1884 (when Carver was only 21 years old). He had developed a way to heat peanuts between two surfaces and mill them down into “a fluid or semi-fluid state.” Once cooled, Edson described the matter like “a consistency like that of butter, lard, or ointment.” However, credit cannot be placed upon Edson solely since the Aztecs of Central America had created a type of “peanut paste” hundreds of years before. This society utilized the nut in the exact same way; as a nutritious and easily produced source of food.
Carver steps into the picture after the Civil War. Supposedly born a slave in Missouri in January 1864 he realized— through his work as a scientist, inventor, and botanist —that alternative crops such as soybeans, pecans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts were needed in the South. These crops would supply needed nutrients for the depleted fields and protect against boll weevil attacks while also adding to the diets of poor farmers and their families. After becoming the first preside of The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Booker T. Washington asked Carver to become the head of the Agricultural Department. Despite some differences and out-right condemnation over his 47 year tenure Carver began experimenting and invented over 300 uses for peanut butter ranging from cosmetics to gasoline. Carver’s major start with peanuts began for food, but also revolved heavily around recipes and ideas for adhesives, shoe polish, wood stain, shaving cream, mayonnaise, chili sauce (Thai food?) to name a few. He applied for three patents: Cosmetics and Plant Products (1925) and Paints and Stains twice (1925 and 1927).
It was not, however, until Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh Day Adventist, author, nutrition radical, and –along with his brother, Will Keith Kellogg(inventor of the famous corn flake cereal) – gave his aid to the idea of peanut butter did Carver receive any mainstream recognition. At the time many Americans looked down upon it as a food for ex-slaves and African-Americans, and not until after Kellogg backed the argument that peanuts were healthy and provided needed nutrition to lacking diets did the product really take off.
(Sidenote: Dr. Kellogg also was a huge supporter of vegetarian diets and claimed that forgoing meat—and replacing that protein with nuts, et. al, —would “rescue civilization from the ‘race-destroying’ effects of universal constipation and world-wide autointoxication [self-poisoning].”)
Carver’s reputation and research into agricultural developments greatly impacted the history of the South. Now you can find peanut butter anywhere (although a majority of the modern stuff is made with hydrogenated oils), and peanuts in a wide variety of products. My favorite happens to be peanut-infused bourbon Manhattans. I would say thanks to George Washington Carver just for that.