There are few sandwich-adjacent questions more polarizing than whether you’re a crunchy peanut butter person or someone who prefers the smooth stylings of creamy—you’re either one or the other. After all, most modern Americans have been developing an opinion on the issue since they were little kids, mashing it into celery sticks during snack time or swirling it around with sticky-sweet jam as a go-to sack lunch. Peanut butter is so deeply rooted in popular culture and the country’s agricultural history that it’s easy to take for granted just how versatile and downright decadent it is as a treat. Teaming up with chocolate? Peanut butter can do that. Making the perfect savory sauce for chicken satay? Yep, it can do that, too.
And while the range of nut butters on shelves today seems to be ever-expanding and diversifying, few can match the humble peanut’s truly ancient history.
“How long have peanuts been cultivated?” Jon Krampner asks in his book, Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food. “They were found at a 3,800-year-old archaeological site in Peru, and domesticated peanuts are known from Peruvian excavations of 3,000 to 2,000 B.C.E., although cultivation probably began much earlier. Almost 3,000 years ago, South American Indians ground peanuts into a sticky paste. It was not as spreadable as modern peanut butter and was mixed with cocoa. Peanuts have been a part of West African cuisine for 500 years…[where they] ground roasted peanuts with a roller until they achieved a grainy consistency like the filling in peanut butter cups, then mixed in honey and red pepper.”
And while Incans were making peanut-shaped pottery in tribute to the legume as early as 1500 B.C., its esteemed role in American life as the spreadable, jack-of-all-trades ingredient it is today began in the mid-19th Century. Considered labor-intensive and challenging to cultivate throughout the 1700s and typically grown only for peanut oil or livestock feed (read: not human consumption), peanut butter found its way into the day-to-day snacking rotation of the American South after the Civil War, when a prototype peanut butter was made from peanuts that were shelled, roasted and then “chopped, ground or beaten into a paste in a cloth bag and eaten with salt,” according to Krampner. This rudimentary version of the spread was praised for its levels of power-packed protein and—bonus!—it was relatively inexpensive and simple to create.
Peanut butter as we know it today was dreamed up by eccentric cereal guru and nutritionist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg’s) in 1895 as a way to feed elderly patients with poor dental hygiene at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. The health food paste made its official debut in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Despite conflicting accounts about whether this version actually tasted good, there was no denying it was a hit with the curious, hungry masses. Fueled by frugality, the peanut-butter-as-superfood marketing trend would crystalize during the early 20th century when Americans went, ahem, nutty for peanut butter as part of “meatless Monday” rationing during World War I. One 1908 ad from a now-defunct peanut butter company even went so far as to claim that “just 10 cents’ worth of peanuts contain six times the energy of a porterhouse steak.”
In truth, peanut butter might not be Popeye-eating-a-can-of-spinach levels of muscle-fueling, but by the 1920s, it was already on the path to ubiquity. Cross-country shipping, shelf-stable storage and easy spreadability (no stirring required!) were made possible when partial hydrogenation technology was applied to the creamy concoction, followed by the advent of the wide-mouth lid and, finally, the arrival of crunchy peanut butter on the scene in the 1930s. (What can I say? I’m Team Crunchy.) Today, the innovations in peanut butter technology continue apace, with squeezable pouches developed in 2020 for even greater on-the-go eating ease. The National Peanut Board reports that peanut butter is eaten in nearly 90% of American households. And who can blame us? Whether you’re a creamy or a crunchy, like to dress it up decadently like Elvis or simply spread it on a saltine cracker, peanut butter is something we can (mostly) all agree on.