During the 2022 season of the Great British Baking Show, one contestant proposed a berry and peanut butter cheesecake to judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith. To American viewers, that combination seemed like a no-brainer, but both British judges reacted in confusion and revulsion. Hollywood commented “peanut and fruit. You wouldn’t normally put them together,” while Leith agreed it was “quite strange.” As an American watching, I flinched at what felt like a rejection of our culture; or perhaps, an illustration of just how deeply our love of peanut butter and jelly runs.
The nutty paste itself is a fairly modern ingredient, skyrocketing in popularity at the beginning of the 20th century. The transformation of peanuts into the ubiquitous butter was less about an individual moment of lightning-strike brilliance, and like most things, was a slow progression with contributions from many communities. According to Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food by Jon Krampner, the peanut’s homeland is the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, in modern-day Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. The oldest physical example of peanuts comes from a 3,800-year-old Peruvian burial site, where remarkably well-preserved peanuts were found in terra-cotta jars.
The peanut travels across the Atlantic…twice
The legume was cultivated by the Inca, Aztecs, and then the Arawak as the plant was carried north over thousands of years. Then, peanuts traveled east across the Atlantic through the Columbian exchange; the transfer of plants, animals, and diseases after Europeans landed in the Americas, starting in 1492. Peanut plants thrived in the sand soils of West Africa, in what is modern-day Senegal. The legume became an important part of the region's cuisines in the form of ground peanut-based soups and stews like maafe in Senegal, domoda in The Gambia, and shorba in Sudan.
In the 17th century, the peanut crossed the ocean again, packed as a familiar food for trafficked West Africans. Once ashore across the Atlantic, they planted the legume in their own gardens, both as a way to supplement meager plantation rations and preserve their food traditions, which greatly influenced the first recorded culinary uses of peanuts in North America. The first published recipe for peanut soup appeared in the cookbook The Carolina Housewife, written by Sarah Rutledge, published in 1847: “Groundnut Soup—To half a pint of shelled groundnuts, well beaten up, add two spoonfuls of flour, and mix well. Put to them a pint of oysters, and a pint and half of water. While boiling, throw in a red pepper, or two, if small.”
How peanut became butter
Long before Goop and Gwyneth Paltrow, there was John Harvey Kellogg (the same guy who gave the world Corn Flakes) and his trendy health spa called the Battle Creek Sanitarium located in Michigan. Kellogg—a Seventh-day Adventist, health food fanatic, and wearer of only white suits—made “the San,” a destination for celebrities and the wealthy, including J.C. Penney, Thomas Edison, and Upton Sinclair, to stay and heal. The treatments offered at the spa were occasionally dubious or dangerous such as radiation therapy and multiple daily enemas, to name a few. The cafeteria offered a range of nut “butters'' which Kellogg avidly promoted as a protein alternative to meat.
In 1895, Kellogg filed a patent for a new method of grinding boiled nuts into butter, promoting nut butters, including peanut butters, as a vegetarian protein alternative. As a Seventh-day Adventist, vegetarianism was a part of his faith, but the push towards a no-animal diet was already a nationwide trend at the time. Journalists were uncovering the horrible results of little to no government oversight of processed foods; most famously, Upton Sinclair researched The Jungle in the meat processing plants of Chicago. Harnessing this meat-free frenzy, Kellogg introduced a meat alternative named Protose, a mock meatloaf made of peanut butter, seitan, and herbs.
At the same time Kellogg was promoting the use of nut butters to a largely white and wealthy clientele, George Washington Carver was instructing Black farmers to grow less cotton and more peanuts. Carver, the son of an enslaved woman, was a brilliant child with a penchant for reading. In 1896, he received his master's degree in agriculture from Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm (now Iowa State University), and later, headed the agricultural department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama—an institution dedicated to the education of Black Americans—for 46 years.
In 1917, Carver published what would become his most famous agricultural pamphlet on peanuts. Food historian Toni Tipton-Martin wrote that Carver published a total of 44 agricultural bulletins during his time at Tuskegee Institute, writing about crops and farming techniques to help lift sharecroppers, other Black farmers, and anyone who was struggling to live off the land.
His “Bulletin No. 31: How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption” summarized the benefits of planting peanuts and best practices for growing the legume. But the majority of the book was over 100 recipes collected from newspapers, Good Housekeeping magazine, and agricultural journals. He offered five versions of peanut soup and pitched peanuts as a coffee substitute. There was “Aunt Nellie’s Peanut Brown Bread,” made with whole wheat flour invented by famous vegetarian Reverend Sylvester Graham; and an oatmeal peanut bread with rolled oats and chopped peanuts. There were recipes for peanut cookies, muffins, doughnuts, layer cakes and jelly rolls, mock chicken, veal, sausages (using ripe bananas as a binder), and of course, homemade peanut butter.
Carver is often mistakenly identified as the creator of peanut butter because he became so famous for his work with peanuts. As one of America’s leading agricultural minds, he was asked to speak before Congress on the benefits of peanut agriculture and potential peanut products. At the time, it was rare for a Black man to speak on the floor of the House, and the event made him both a national celebrity and forever associated in the public mind with peanuts. Over his life, Carver conceptualized 300 different uses for the legume while he continued teaching at Tuskegee, where a museum about his life–and peanuts—stands to this day.
How did jelly come into the equation?
About the same time both Kellogg and Carver were promoting peanuts, commercial brands of peanut butter made their way to market. Although a mainstay in African American culture, peanut butter was new and often fancy to other Americans, and Atlantic was the first commercial peanut butter they could buy on the market.
Cookbooks and magazines promoted dainty sandwiches with numerous pairings for peanut butter with other ingredients, like mayo and pickles—a combination still popular in parts of the South. A book in my own collection, 1001 Sandwiches—first published in 1928, the same year the first bread-slicing machine was invented—includes over 40 peanut butter sandwich recipes. Author Florence A. Cowles recommends sandwiches made from peanut butter combined with quince, peanut brittle, tomatoes, celery, hard-boiled eggs, maraschino cherries, green peppers, and salad dressing. But the combo that really stuck with the American people was peanut butter and jelly.
The first recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich appeared in The Boston Cooking School magazine in 1901; a finger sandwich with currant jelly: “For variety, some day try making little sandwiches, or bread fingers, of three very thin layers of bread and two of filling, one of peanut paste, whatever brand you prefer, and currant or crab apple jelly for the other. The combination is delicious, and so far as I know, original.” Tart, sweet jam complemented oily, unsweetened peanut butter, but it was a combination made convenient by pre-packaged jams. While jellies and jams had been made in the home for hundreds of years, commercial jams were a new addition to grocery shelves in the 1890s. Early brands included Smucker’s from Ohio, which began peddling apple butter in 1897.
In the end, it was largely moms—of every background—who made peanut butter and jelly an American staple. As commercial manufacturers began selling jarred nut butters in the 1920s, moms paired it with another new invention: sliced bread. Healthy and affordable, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich became the staple of kid’s lunch boxes everywhere. With the introduction of school lunches and other government assistance programs, cheap and nutritious peanut butter also had the benefit of fulfilling religious diet requirements in immigrant neighborhoods—it could be served on meat-free Fridays to Catholics and was parve under Kosher law.
As Krampner noted in his book, “only 150,000 bushels of peanuts were produced in the United States in 1860; by 1895 that figure had risen to 8 million.” It was a total transformation of peanuts from a snack for the out-and-about to a mainstay of the American pantry. Historian Andrew F. Smith wrote in his book Peanuts, “today, 85 percent of all American homes have jars of peanut butter in their cupboards.” It’s perhaps our most ubiquitous pan-American ingredient.
If you’d like to try a taste of the past, some of the earliest peanut butter manufacturers are still around producing a premium product. The Krema Nut Company has been manufacturing peanut butter in my home state of Ohio since 1898. They make their product 19th-century style: thick, unhomogenized, and using only peanuts with “no added salt, sugar, or oils.” Koeze’s Cream-Nut Peanut Butter from Michigan has been around since 1925, and I’ve spotted it in grocery stores as far away as Brooklyn. It’s unique because it’s made with Virginia peanuts, which are rarely used in peanut butter today (we’re more familiar with them as peanuts roasted in the shell). With these brands, history is within reach. All it takes is a bag of sliced bread and a jar of your favorite jam to taste the PB&J of a century ago.