Bites of History: Humble peanut a versatile ingredient, or tasty all by itself

In praise of the peanut

When you’re out at the old ball game, do you enjoy cracking open roasted peanuts and munching on Cracker Jack, the sweet popcorn treat that contains peanuts? We all know that the peanut is an iconic baseball snack. But did you know that it’s also an important part of Southern agricultural history and that in the early 1900s, botanist and inventor George Washington Carver found over 300 different uses for the humble legume? (Yes, it’s in the pea family.)

The peanut is one of the many foods historians believe originated in the New World and went to Europe with explorers, and then made its way to the U.S. Specifically, evidence points to a South American origin, where this close relative of the lentil was domesticated around Paraguay. Spanish conquistadors encountered the peanut in Mexico City, and then sailed it back home across the Atlantic. From there, peanuts spread to Asia and Africa, and in the 1700s came to North America with the African slave trade.

Carver himself was born into slavery. He was owned by a couple in Diamond, Mo., and after the Civil War, the young George was raised and educated by his former masters. As a child, he took particular interest in botany and was regularly called upon by neighbors to “cure” sick plants. Praised locally as the “plant doctor,” he went on to graduate from high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, and then became the first black student at what is today Iowa State University, where he also became the school’s first black faculty member.

Carver ended up running the upstart Tuskegee Institute’s agricultural department, where he conducted research and training in methods of rotating crops of peanuts with cotton, a plant that depletes the soil of nutrients. During that time, from the back of his Jesup Wagon, his lab on wheels, Carver and his students and staff toured the South and tested soils, conducted farming demonstrations, gave conservation tips and handed out agricultural bulletins he’d written.

Carver’s most famous booklet, published in 1916, and which included recipes from other publications, was titled “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption.” This had been in response to a boll weevil crisis that was destroying Alabama’s cotton crop. In time, cotton oil mills were converted to produce peanut oil. Livestock was fed peanut plants, and sharecroppers themselves were eating, as well as selling, the protein-rich food. And although others had also advocated growing peanuts, according to many, it was Carver’s teaching and public relations campaign that helped save the economy of the South.

Soon, the U.S. had too much of a good thing, and with a huge surplus of peanuts on the market, Carver decided to develop alternate uses for the crop. So he went to work separating the peanut’s fats, oils, gums, resins and sugars. And over the years, he developed peanut-based foods such as chili sauce, peanut-lemon punch, caramel, peanut sausage, mayonnaise and coffee. Some of the non-edibles he created were shampoo, shaving cream, glue, insecticides, charcoal, rubber, nitroglycerine, plastics and axle grease. And he even tried to come up with a peanut oil massage to cure polio.

This self-described “cook-stove chemist” also conducted groundbreaking experiments with soybeans and sweet potatoes. And by the time of his death in 1943, he was known internationally for his work with agriculture, as well as for being a scholar, scientist, humanitarian, conservationist and educator.

In spite of his litany of impressive achievements, most of us remember George Washington Carver simply as the father of the peanut industry. At least partly due to his efforts, today Americans eat more than 700 million pounds of peanut butter (which Carver didn’t invent, by the way). We also consume over 600 million pounds of peanuts, with each major league baseball team selling upward of 70,000 bags of roasted goobers a season. And in dollar terms, that certainly ain’t peanuts!

Sources: fieldmuseum.org; black-inventor.com; nationalpeanutboard.org; nps.gov

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through www.cynthianobles.com.