By Gena Feith
William F. Buckleywas dispatched to a British boarding school when he was 12 years old. Every two weeks he would receive a care package containing a case of grapefruit and a large jar of peanut butter. For Buckley, peanut butter was more than a spread. It was an inspiration for poetry. In a 1981 National Review column, he composed his first and only poem, an ode to the paste. When Buckley passed away in February 2008, his ardor was commemorated by his son, Christopher, who enshrined four items alongside Buckley's body: his late wife's ashes, his favorite rosary beads, a television remote control and a jar of peanut butter.
Creamy & Crunchy
By Jon Krampner
Columbia, 298 pages, $27.95
What do we talk about when we talk about peanut butter? In "Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food," Jon Krampner talks about botany, childhood, the American South, advertising, nutrition, nostalgia and, inevitably, the eternal creamy vs. crunchy controversy. In a little more than 200 pages, he ventures around the peanut butter belt—from the fields of the Florida Panhandle to the manufacturing plants of Georgia and Virginia—combs through pages of congressional testimony on salmonella outbreaks at peanut-butter plants, investigates peanut butter's ubiquitous place in popular culture and provides tips on the etiquette of polite peanut-butter consumption (cutlery is a must). Interspersed throughout these offerings are recipes for peanut-butter meatballs, peanut-butter stew, peanut-butter French toast, and peanut butter and satay.
In short, Mr. Krampner surveys the ascent of a lowbrow legume, Arachis hypogaea, to the iconic status it occupies today in more than 75% of American pantries. The book claims to be the first substantive history of the nut butter. It is also Mr. Krampner's first effort as a food historian, perhaps accounting for its obsessive fact-gathering and a pace that is as sludgy as its subject.
But keep slogging and you will discover the story of a nut touched by history. Spanish slave traders introduced peanuts to the Americas, wars such as the Civil War and World War I popularized it as an alimentary substitute for meat, and scientists—George Washington Carver, most famously—promoted its butter as a health supplement. Mr. Krampner aims to suss out some of the mysteries surrounding the product's past, starting with its inventor. Carver is often wrongly credited with originating it, when in fact John Harvey Kellogg patented a version in 1895 based on the recipe he dispensed as a laxative at his Battle Creek, Mich., sanitarium. Another early pioneer was St. Louis physician Ambrose Straub, who prescribed it to his toothless patients and debuted it at the 1904 World's Fair. It was St. Louis manufacturer George Bayle, however, who around the same time established peanut butter as a popular snack. Bayle concocted a proto-version of Cheez Whiz flavored with groundnuts. It proved to be unpopular with housewives until he nixed the cheese.
Postwar advertisers built on this historical foundation and ushered peanut butter into the American snack pantheon. Peanut butter's popularity dipped during the fat-phobic 1980s and '90s, but its usage has steadily risen in recent years, particularly since the start of the recession, as a cheap and easy source of fuel.
Mr. Krampner switches between a number of nonfiction narrative styles throughout the book—history, travelogue, cultural criticism and memoir. Unfortunately, his book reads more like a research log than a voyage of journalistic discovery. Inexhaustible facts exhaust. All too often in "Creamy & Crunchy" the reader is saturated in goober arcana. But Mr. Krampner leaves us wondering why this childhood staple remained a mainstay for adults, and why it is such fodder for worship. All we know, finally, is that peanut butter never served as a currency for financing wars, as salt and other substances have. Rightfully, Mr. Krampner doesn't overstate its role in American history. But peanut butter's absence in our lives is unimaginable—except to the allergic.—Ms. Feith, a former presidential speechwriter, is currently pursuing a master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction at Columbia University.