On average, Americans consume more than six pounds of peanut products each year, worth more than $2 billion at the retail level.
The peanut plant could be traced back to Peru and Brazil in South America around 3,500 years ago. European explorers first discovered peanuts in Brazil and saw its value, taking them back to their respective countries, where it was a bit slow to catch on but became popular in Western Africa. (Along with the French just never really got it.)
History informs us that it was not until the early 1800s that peanuts have been grown commercially in the USA, and clearly revealed up at the dinner table of foodie president Thomas Jefferson, likely in the form of peanut soup, a delicacy in Southern areas. After all, Jefferson was an enthusiastic gardener who lived in Virginia. Civil War Confederate soldiers welcomed boiled peanuts as a change from hardtack and beef jerky. First cultivated chiefly for its oil, they were initially considered fodder for livestock as well as the bad, like so many other now-popular foods. Technically not nuts, peanuts are part of the legume family and grown underground in pods, along with peas and beans.
Peanuts began to catch on in the late 1800s when Barnum and Bailey circus wagons traveled cross country hawking “animal in attic removal cost” to the audiences. Street vendors soon followed, selling roasted peanuts out of carts, and they became a staple in taverns and at baseball games. (Throwing the bags to worried customers became an art form.)
As with many other popular foods, peanut butter was first introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 but essentially still needed to be made by hand. Catching on as a favorite source of protein, commercial peanut butter made its appearance on grocers’ shelves in the late 1920s and early 30s, beginning with Peter Pan and Skippy.
He recommended that farmers rotate their cotton plants with peanuts that replenished the nitrogen content in the soil that cotton depleted. In his inaugural research, he discovered countless uses for the humble peanut.
Although it’s thought that the Inca Indians in South America ground peanuts centuries ago (we know for sure they were not spreading it on white bread with grape jelly), credit is usually awarded to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of corn flakes fame) for producing the initial peanut butter in 1895 for his elderly patients who had trouble chewing different proteins.
In the U.S. peanuts are the 12th most valuable cash crop and have an annual farm value of more than one billion dollars. They’re an easy, low-maintenance crop, nutritious, economical, transportable and just plain yummy. Some of our more popular uses include:
Baking and cookies
Snacks, both boiled or roasted, in-shell or no-shell
Not to be forgotten is peanut oil, which is a highly regarded form of cooking oil, due to its ability to withstand higher temperatures and the added advantage that food doesn’t hold any peanut flavor after cooking.
Sadly, due to a rise in allergies, peanuts are disappearing from sporting events and other venues, and some airlines replaced them years ago with cheaper pretzels. But no matter how you like them, in their simplest form, covered in chocolate or mixed into your favorite dishes, this popular snack and sandwich filling crosses all economic and age barriers. We’ve gone nutty, all right. And for those of you who are allergic, you have our heartfelt sympathy.