As the idiom goes, something is “as American as apple pie,” and the dessert often concludes Fourth of July feasts that involve celebrating U.S. independence with a spread of foods that have, over the years, taken their place at the table to become considered traditional American fare like hot dogs, hamburgers, and most anything barbecued. The true all-American food, however, is far more quotidian and universal—at least within U.S. borders. It’s peanut butter.
Americans consume more than a billion pounds of peanut butter per year, spending almost $800 million a year on the stuff. The numbers reveal obvious mass consumption, but what solidifies peanut butter as the all-American food is what people add to it starting in childhood; it is the symbolism and homey memories as sweet as a jar of JIF that have elevated the product to a near-consecrated place in American culture. “What’s more sacred than peanut butter?” asked Senator Tom Harkin in 2009 from the dais, a jar of peanut butter in hand when accusing Peanut Corporation of America of consciously delivering salmonella-tainted peanut butter to a school lunch program. “I still eat peanut butter sandwiches.”
No other food is so visibly present in Americana nostalgia and in the typified American upbringing as peanut butter. In the 1960s, revered portrayer of halcyon (and a touch idealized) American life Norman Rockwell even illustrated a Skippy ad. “Peanut butter embodies the raw primordial heart of American childhood,” says Jon Krampner, author of Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food.
“In many parts of the world, peanut butter is regarded as an unpalatable American curiosity.”
To grow up in the United States means to eat peanut butter, most commonly consumed in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and this hasn’t changed for generations. The nut spread—pick your camp: creamy or crunchy (or these days mix in the natural option)—appears in packed and cafeteria-prepped lunches across the country, surmounting regional and socioeconomic divides. It is consumed in nine out of 10 U.S. households and the average U.S. schoolchild today eats about 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the time high school graduation arrives, according to National Peanut Board statistics. Peanut butter is a key ingredient in the American diet.
The nut paste is an American equalizer, a characteristic with more historic weight than what comes from personal memories of biting into a PB&J during that gleeful school hour allotted for dining and recreational freedom. During the Great Depression, peanut butter sandwiches were handed out in food lines. It was a low-cost, beneficially caloric meal—exactly what people needed. “It’s the Depression that makes the PB&J the core of childhood food,” says Andrew F. Smith, food historian and author of Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea. “It is one of those things that will bind children together regardless of nationality and ethnic group.”
Generations later, it still does. Krampner surmises that “immigrant kids tend to take to it as a part of their Americanization process.” My father is a first-generation Mexican immigrant and my sister adopted from China, and our cupboard reliably contained a jar of peanut butter we dug into daily. Much like how my sister’s English as a Second Language class teacher screened the classic Disney movies for her kindergarten students to catch them up on cultural references, developing a taste for peanut butter is a component of the acculturation process in the U.S. It is sustenance for understanding America.
Despite peanut butter’s ubiquity stateside, that the concoction enjoys such widespread popularity and consumption in the U.S. seems, well, nutty to much of the world. While peanuts are a staple in many of the world’s cuisines—peanut sauce in Asian cooking is just one example—peanut butter has not stuck anywhere quite like it has in the U.S. Peanuts are not native to the U.S., but peanut butter was invented in the American Midwest in the 1890s (though there is debate as to who should get the credit). It was first a novelty, Smith says, a niche, high-end treat. The Great Depression rendered it a common comestible denominator, and commercial manufacturers created appeal for the juvenile masses when they upped sugar content in the 1930s.
Time spent living in Spain during college and now Argentina for three years has taught me that few things mystify and confuse about American culture quite like peanut butter and its profound appeal in the U.S. It’s an odd yellowish-brown hue to start, and as for texture, composition, and flavor? To the untrained palate it’s thick, heavy, gooey, and, depending on the brand, often cloyingly sweet. As Brian Sternthal, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, explained to Krampner, “In many parts of the world, peanut butter is regarded as an unpalatable American curiosity.” But from seeing school kids consume peanut butter in just about every Hollywood production—and perhaps encounters with peanut butter-rabid expatriates—outsiders know those of us in and from the U.S. more or less have a place in our memories, hearts, and diets only peanut butter can fill.
Smith recalls futile grocery store searches for the spread when living in Germany in the ’60s. (He later found he could get his hands on it through the U.S. military post.) While most countries around the world with relatively open import policies will stock peanut butter or produce their own local brands, it usually takes searching and shelling out extra than you would in the U.S.—and it never seems to taste quite right. When friends and family visit those living abroad, peanut butter is a top request for gifts and goods from home.
“Peanut butter is the ultimate American comfort food,” Lee Zalben, owner of Peanut Butter and Co. Sandwich Shop in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village told Krampner. “We’re introduced to it at a very young age. It’s sort of a staple throughout our childhood, and as we grow up and get old, peanuts and peanut butter take us back to simpler, happier times. It’s like a memory for your mouth.”
Peanut butter is the food that, more so than any other, has become part of America’s collective memory and identity through its presence in tougher times and everyday life.