We’re easing away from Port Angeles: the battery-driven electric motor that the Race Marshal had installed in Seattle is driving us west along the Strait of Juan Fuco; the city of Victoria, British Colombia, still visible off to starboard. My main task this morning – to hoist the sails – is not yet upon me, so my focus now is on sustenance for the day ahead. I am in the galley cutting white bread which I shall shortly spread with peanut butter and jelly. An apt choice: today is after all National Peanut Butter Day.
I horrify American friends by spreading real butter on the bread before the peanut butter and jelly. This raises the calorific quotient but is delicious. An ounce of peanuts (roughly 35 nuts) offers 161 calories rising 167 calories after transfiguration. An ounce of dairy butter, on the other hand, has 203 calories. And, while we’re at it, a slice of bread has about 75 calories – the same as an ounce of jelly. So my sandwiches would provide a little over 300 calories in an echt state – and closer to 500 when double-buttered.
During the First World War peanut butter was seen as a good substitute for meat because of the high protein quotient – 26% (steak is 25% protein). The war’s ‘Meatless Mondays’ drove demand and the American love of peanut butter has not looked back. Last year, 299.34 million Americans indulged; only 34 million said they had not; worryingly, a further 1.36 million said they didn’t know.
There is no link that I can find between peanut butter and dementia – though there is a peanut butter smell test for Alzhiemer’s (really – also, apparently for Covid-19). In fact, peanut butter emerged into the modern world (the Aztecs pioneered it in the ancient) in a health context. John Harvey Kellogg, a medical doctor as well as the inventor of the ubiquitous cereal, created a paste of peanuts for patients in his sanatorium at Battle Creek in Michigan.
The National Peanut Board of America gives credit to two others in the creation story – one was Canadian, Marcellus Gilmore Edson who, in 1884, patented peanut paste and the other was Dr Ambrose Straub who invented a peanut-butter-making machine: method and mechanisation brought peanut butter to the masses.
The National Peanut Board is also categorical that peanut butter was not invented by ‘Peanut Man’, George Washington Carver. Certainly Carver had a lot to do with the peanut – not least in writing the famous Tuskegee pamphlet How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption.
But this is really the wrong lens through which to view his life. I can’t think of any scientists who have achieved sainthood – other than Saint Hildegard of Bingen whose elevation was due to her visions, rather than her two books on herbal remedies and medicines – or her music. (Erratum: Aleteia, the Catholic news and information website, asserts: “the annals of sainthood are filled with brilliant scientific minds, many of whom were pioneers in scientific fields”).
George Washington Carver, in his quiet way, is perhaps in such company. He felt called by God, lived an austere, celibate and modest life rejecting wealth, and devoted himself to serving the indigent share croppers of the post-bellum South.
Born into slavery on a plantation in Missouri in the early years of the Civil War, he and his mother were abducted by an armed gang and sold into more slavery in Arkansas. His father had died early and his mother seems simply to have disappeared – but George was bought back by his owners, the Carver family, and adopted by them. In his teens, he set off in search of education – his “golden door of opportunity”, a view he shared with Booker T Washington, the great educator and leader, who was later to be extraordinarily influential in his life.
Carver was admitted to Iowa State University and worked hard at his chosen subject of agricultural science. He had extraordinary gifts as a teacher and scientist and became a lecturer at the university. So by the 1890s, Carver was the only black authority on agricultural science in the United States – just the man to help Booker T Washington by establishing an agricultural science school at the Tuskegee Institute, a new adult education initiative for African Americans.
When Carver arrived at Tuskegee in Alabama, he witnessed “devastated forests, ruined estates, and a thoroughly discouraged people, many just eking out a miserable sort of existence from the furrowed and guttered hillsides and neglected valleys called farms.” He saw the thousands of farming families – poverty-stricken share-croppers – who had been forced to kill their soil with crop after crop of cotton and who were now watching the cotton being killed by the boll weevil.
Carver had found his calling and these were the people to whom he devoted his life. Carver believed that “nature will drive away those who commit sins against it” and he persuaded farmers that salvation lay in the adoption of more sustainable agricultural methods. This was the great insight that he had gained from Iowa which, in the 1890s was one of a handful of universities, all in the mid-west, at the forefront of the emerging ecological movement. Carver’s mentor there, Louis Pammel, professor of botany, taught “a religious reverence for the complexity and interrelatedness of the natural world”. Carver too spoke of “organic unity”, seeing in nature “the hand of a beneficent Creator”.
To the farmers of Alabama, he preached his ecological message: use natural fertilisers and cultivate crops that restore depleted soils – soybeans, sweet potatoes and peanuts. And not content with merely having these crops grown, he found ways in which these could be used for sustenance or profit – 118 uses for sweet potatoes and eventually a remarkable 300 derivations from peanuts – dyes, flour, milk, soap (but not peanut butter). And he offered practical advice: for example, to have two or three extra sheep, farmers should “sacrifice a goodly number of the worthless puppies that are in evidence in too many dooryards”.
He taught the farmers anyway he could – through classes, conferences, public lectures, travelling displays and even grand picnics. There is a handbill at Tuskegee that reads:
Prof. Geo. W. Carver is one of the best educated men in our colored race. If your soil don’t produce crops, well bring some with you and he will tell you the reason why. Some of your fruit trees are failing to bear as they should, break off a small branch and bring it with you, and you will be told the cause. Any question on any kind of plant or any kind of soil you are at liberty to ask him; he is the man to answer. Don’t miss this Grand Picnic. Come and be with us, and feast on the many delicacies we are going to have.
Carver brought an agricultural revolution in the South and he became a national figure. He dined at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt and was influential in the administration of Franklin D Roosevelt (who used Carver’s peanut oil to ease his polio).
His expertise was mined by thousands of people; Edison offered him a salary of $100,000 to come and work for him. But he turned them all down, preferring to live alone in a modest dormitory room at Tuskegee. There was something about Carver’s moral worth, his generosity and willingness to serve others that brought devotion from students, Alabama share croppers and the eminent alike. When Carver was growing increasingly infirm, his friend Henry Ford (who had spent a lifetime picking Carver’s brain) witnessed his daily struggle to climb the stairs to his his room – so he put in an elevator for him.
National Peanut Butter Day at Brookfield Zoo – https://youtu.be/e3UAH9l9y84
A recipe for the brave – Peanut Butter Biscuit Dough Brownies – https://foodnetwork.co.uk/recipes/peanut-butter-biscuit-dough-brownies/
A brief (30 second) history of peanuts by the National Peanut Board – https://youtu.be/sCPdWDU4VfA
How Peanuts Came to Alabama – https://youtu.be/ahhKY1pNPeQ
A really wonderful film about Carver (with some incredible still photography); it takes a little while to get going – https://youtu.be/_3CVmluYFtI
Peanut Butter sung by Chubby Checker – https://youtu.be/nvWI4ong3vs
And, of course, The Truthettes with their Peanut Butter and Jelly – https://youtu.be/_tghosaNXHs
PICTURE OF THE DAY
National Peanut Board website – https://www.nationalpeanutboard.org/peanut-info/history-peanuts-peanut-butter.htm
Hints and Suggestions to Farmers: George Washington Carver and Rural Conservation in the South Mark Hersey Environmental History, Vol. 11, No. 2 (April 2006) 239-268
George Washington Carver The Journal of Negro History Vol. 28, No. 1 (January 1943) 117-118