When I was a kid, creamy Peter Pan was our peanut butter of choice. So when I found this booklet at a second-hand bookstore, I was excited. Like many school children of my generation, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were a lunchbox staple. In the lunchroom, I’d look enviously at kids whose parents sent trendy lunch items, like Lunchables. PB&J was just not as exciting. In the schoolyard, we’d speculate on “gross” what ifs, like what if you crossed a cheese sandwich and a PB&J? Peanut butter and mayonnaise! Peanut butter and cheese! How disgusting! As a child, it seemed like PB&J sandwiches had always existed. They were a boring, yet comfortable standby.
Before we dive into the cookbook, I need to clarify a few misconceptions about the origins of peanut butter. Commercially produced peanut butter dates to the late nineteenth century. Like many foods, the story of commercial peanut butter is a bit murky. In grade school, I learned that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, which is not true, as it turns out. Carver’s association with peanut butter stems from an agricultural bulletin published by the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1916 titled How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption. A recipe for making peanut butter is included in the book. Carver registered patents for other peanut products, but by the time his book was published, peanut butter had already been patented and was being sold commercially.
So if Carver did not invent peanut butter, who did? According to Jon Krampner, author of Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, there is evidence that South American Indians were grinding peanuts into paste 3000 years ago; however, the commercial peanut butter that we know today dates to the 1880s. There are two main contenders for the first peanut butter patent: Canadian chemist Marcellus Gilmore Edson and John Harvey Kellogg. I say main contenders because there are other unverified claims. Edson filed his patent for “the manufacture of peanut candy” in 1884. The “candy” in question was a ground peanut paste intended for use in confections. Edson ground shelled, roasted peanuts in a heated grinder, resulting in a paste with “the consistency of rather thick or heavy molasses or cream” that cools to “a consistency like that of butter, lard, or ointment.” Sounds a lot like peanut butter, right? Some argue that Edson should receive credit for inventing peanut butter. Others argue that his patent was for a confection, not peanut butter as it was later marketed; therefore, it does not count.
John Harvey Kellogg, contender number two, is perhaps better known for his connection with Corn Flakes. Kellogg ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, which promoted a vegetarian diet. He created several vegetarian products to serve sanitarium patients. Some products were manufactured and sold by a subsidiary food company, Battle Creek Foods. Many articles on the internet give Kellogg credit, but others, like this one on Medium, do not, citing a patent for “Alimentary Products” which describes a product made from ground boiled peanuts which “may be cut up in thick or thin slices like cheese and served as desired.” Definitely not peanut butter.
The problem lies in the fact that Kellogg filed at least two patents for peanut products. The first, Patent No. 580,787 for the “Process of Preparing Nutmeal,” was filed in 1895 and approved in 1897. This patent clearly describes a process for making nut butter. The second, Patent No. 604,493, was filed in 1897 and approved in 1898. This is the patent for the thick, slicable “Alimentary Product.” The dates seem to be causing some confusion, since a reference to Kellogg’s 1897 patent could refer to the date filed or the date approved. A quick internet search yielded several images of the second patent, so that’s the one people are most likely to find. I had to go to the Patent Public Search Database to find the first patent.
The earliest commercial peanut butter was similar to today’s “natural” peanut butters. The oils separated and went rancid fairly quickly. Peanut butter was not a shelf-stable product until the advent of hydrogenation in the 1920s. Like everything in the history of commercial peanut butter, the history of hydrogenation is messy. According to Krampner, Joseph Rosefield received the first patent for hydrogenated peanut butter, although he was not the first to file. Rosefield licensed his patent to Chicago company E.K. Pond, a subsidiary of Derby Foods. Both companies were subsidiaries Chicago meatpacker Swift & Company. Using the name of J.M. Barrie’s famous children’s character, E.K. Pond started selling Peter Pan branded peanut butter in 1928. Rosefield parted ways with Swift in 1932 and launched his own peanut butter, Skippy, the following year.
Like many of the cookbooks in my collection, this Peter Pan cookbook was a promotional item that consumers could redeem with a mail-in coupon printed on Peter Pan advertisements. The booklet’s first pages are devoted to Peter Pan’s qualities. Peter Pan “melts in the mouth,” is made from peanuts that are “radiant roasted,” and it is “triple-milled” for smoothness. It explains that “so many of the old familiar sandwiches and peanut butter dishes taste differently and entirely better when made with creamy-smooth Peter Pan!” All of this is fairly standard ad copy for promotional cookbooks. Every manufacturer tried to distinguish their product from competitors.
What follows is more problematic: a history of the peanut that traces its history from ancient American civilizations, to Christopher Columbus, and slavery. Spanish conquistadors “conquered the South American continent, took back to the old world gold and silver and spices . . . and peanuts.” Peanuts are then described as “the miracle food that saved slaves lives.” Slave traders “found that the victims they kidnapped or bought in Africa for work on American or West Indian plantations, survived the hardships of the long voyage if they were fed raw peanuts.” Slaves are credited with introducing peanuts to the American South where they became an important crop. As the history section concludes, “George Washington Carver, who was born a slave, has taught his fellow Americans that the peanut can give them greater health and yes . . . freedom.”
Taking the cookbook in the context of the mid-1940s, the interpretation is not surprising. It is connected to the broader concepts of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism. At the time, Columbus and the conquistadors were still viewed as heroes who played a role in opening the Americas for settlement. In this version, even slaves, though kidnapped victims, played their role in bringing a delicious, nutritious crop to the American South. The story ends on a happy note. The slaves are free, America is free (especially relevant since World War II had just ended), and Peter Pan peanut butter is tasty. Given that American textbooks of that era taught this version of history (minus the Peter Pan references), I would hardly expect advertising copy to offer a different interpretation or even acknowledge Jim Crow segregation. As a historian, the issue is not really the 1940s interpretation, but what that interpretation says about American business, culture, and society at the time. There’s a lot to unpack in that history; more than I have time for in this post.
The rest of the book is filled with recipes for using Peter Pan. Most recipes fall into the sweet category: cookies, cakes, candies, or desserts. On the savory side, the book includes a few entrees such as “Peter Pan Rice Loaf” which combines peanut butter, rice, and tomato sauce into a casserole. There are no soups or salads, only a lone salad dressing recipe that calls for mixing a cup of peanut butter with a cup of salad dressing. They recommend using it on a fruit salad.
One page is devoted to creative ways to use peanut butter as a sandwich filling. Like other cookbooks of its era, the Peter Pan cookbook recommends a number of combinations that exceeded my grade school imagination. In addition to peanut butter and fruit combos (bananas, orange marmalade, strawberry jam), the book recommends peanut butter and vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, celery, green pepper, cucumbers), and peanut butter and meat (sliced chicken, roast pork, pickle relish and tongue). Mayonnaise even makes an appearance in a mayonnaise, peanut butter, bacon, and lettuce sandwich.
In the 1940s, PB&J sandwiches were still relatively new inventions. In his article, “PB&J: The Rise and Fall of an Iconic American Dish,” Steve Estes dates the first mention of PB&J sandwiches to a 1901 issue of the Boston Cooking School magazine. PB&J sandwiches were considered dainty tearoom fare, not fit for male consumption. As I mentioned this in my Wonder Bread post, cookbooks of the era claimed that men needed “robust” sandwiches with lots of meat and zesty garnishes. PB&J did not fit that definition. That changed during the World War II. Peanut butter was advertised as a hearty meat alternative. It was inexpensive and shelf-stable. As you can see in the “Target for Tonight” ad above, peanut butter is shown as the backbone of a filling meal for hungry servicemen, and they are excited to eat it. The ad copy also emphasizes nutrition and shelf-life. Despite all the advertising, Estes explains that PB&J sandwiches did not become true American staples until the post-War years baby boom years, and even in the 1950s and 1960s, they still maintained an association with childhood.
As I wrap up this post, I’m left with more questions than answers. The gendered perceptions of food are not unique to peanut butter, but it does make me wonder why some foods gain certain cultural reputations. I’m also intrigued by issues of race raised by the product history and how advertising not only sells products, but also helps shape social perceptions. I will not, however, be revisiting my grade school musings on what a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich might taste like. I’ll leave that question to those with braver palates.