Book Review


White bread and peanut butter

September 13, 2013

Thank goodness for the boll weevil. If it had not begun a “General Sherman-like march through the southern cotton crop” in the early days of the 20th century, Jon Krampner tells us, farmers in states such as Georgia and Alabama might not have planted peanuts as an alternative.

If they had not done so earnestly, there would not have been a subsequent peanut glut. Food manufacturers might not have begun roasting and processing the excess for peanut butter. And we might never have realized how great that could taste.

In Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, Krampner delves into the production and popularity of this everyday favorite. The book, which draws on subjects as wide-ranging as botany, nutrition, geology, and organic chemistry, also assesses “allergies, patents and trademarks, antitrust law, the history of the American South, advertising, industrial design, statistics, and the federal rule-making process.”

Peanuts, despite their name, are not actually nuts. They are legumes, more similar to peas and beans “than to walnuts and almonds, which have hard shells and grow on trees.” To make peanut butter, they are shelled, roasted, blanched (this is when their tissue-thin skins are removed), and ground into a paste.

Some say peanut butter was invented by John Harvey Kellogg, a physician who, with his brother, Will, ran a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. They offered peanut butter to patients who had difficulty chewing or digesting nuts properly. (The brothers are better known today for developing cornflakes as a breakfast cereal and founding their eponymous food company.)

Others attribute the rise in peanut-butter popularity to George Bayle, a snack-food maker in St. Louis, Missouri, in the mid-1890s whose company also produced pretzels, potato chips, and crackers. He sold consumers on the idea of peanut butter as a tasty convenience.

In the beginning, all peanut butter was, by default, “natural” and “old-fashioned.” But in the 1920s, hydrogenation changed both the food’s make-up and the industry as a whole.

Raising the melting point of peanut oil so that it was solid at room temperature kept the oil from separating from the peanut solids, Krampner explains. So peanut butter with hydrogenated oil did not need to be refrigerated. Peanut oil would not “pool on top, where, exposed to light and air, it can quickly go rancid.”

Once it became shelf-stable, peanut butter — previously just a local or regional product — could go national. Brands such as Beech-Nut and Heinz got in the game in subsequent decades. Household names like Jif (with its classic ad slogan “Choosy Moms Choose Jif”), Skippy (which introduced crunchy peanut butter), and Peter Pan (known, unfortunately, for its 2006 and 2007 salmonella recalls), continue to dominate the market today. The discussion is comprehensive but accessible, well-researched and relevant.

What Krampner does for peanut butter in his book, Aaron Bobrow-Strain does for the bread on which that peanut butter is often spread.

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In White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, he looks at the prevalence of industrial sliced bread and the “incredibly important, and largely unnoticed, role [it has played] in American politics, diet, culture, and food reform movements.”

There was a time, Bobrow-Strain points out, when certain breads were assigned to certain segments of society “either by formal decree, as in imperial Rome and Assyria, or by implicit custom.” Lighter, whiter loaves, for example, were generally reserved for the upper classes while “darker, chewier, and more admixed loaves” were left to the lower classes.

Food ads and political cartoons in the early 20th century conveyed similar messages. White bread, the sentiment went, was something we should all aspire to. It helped “Americanize” immigrants who had previously eaten only dense, dark bread. Assimilation was what we wanted, it seemed. Variety and diversity were not yet valued.

The discussion leads inevitably to Ward Baking Company in New York. With factories in Brooklyn and the Bronx, it became “the flagship of a revolution in the way the country’s single most important staple was produced and sold.” It used big machines in bright buildings to bake white bread, and offered it to the masses.

By the end of the 1920s, Ward had expanded its business significantly. It created a near-monopoly nationwide “by pioneering key technological breakthroughs, running roughshod over union labor, [and] laying waste to small competitors.” The maneuvers it executed would have dazzled even Gordon Gekko, says Bobrow-Strain.

Peanuts and white bread combine in the classic PB&J sandwich.

Through a series of mergers and acquisitions in cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, and Providence, Ward eventually became Wonder Bakeries, known indelibly as the makers of Wonder Bread — a name that (despite the financial tribulations of its most recent parent company, Hostess) is still synonymous with sliced white bread.

These days, of course, industrial bread is a global phenomenon. Mexico’s Grupo Bimbo, for example, which opened its first American-style factory in 1945 in Mexico City, ranks among the world’s largest food manufacturers. From the start, the company made clever use of advertising, getting its name in newspapers and on radio and television. Its mascot, Bimbo Bear, grew into a commercial pop-culture icon.

Bimbo sold itself the way Wonder initially sold itself, Bobrow-Strain says, by championing “the hygienic nature of factory bread [and] the importance of modern bread in building a strong nation.” It extended its reach in recent decades by taking over brands like Weston Foods and Sara Lee. In 2009, Grupo Bimbo did almost $10 billion in international sales, had 100,000 employees, and operated “in 18 countries from Chile to China.”

On taste and nutrition, however, the author admits, generic store-bought loaves cannot compare to artisanal or homemade ones. Soft, spongy loaves filled with preservatives to increase shelf life. Supermarket white bread that “can pick up difficult bits of broken glass, clean typewriter keys, and absorb motor oil spills.” Were these things even food?

Interest in heartier, healthier breads has picked up over the years. Acme Bread in Berkeley and La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles helped lead resurgences in the 1980s and 1990s. Before we knew it, packaged white bread began to share retail space with baguettes and ciabatta loaves. Today, the choices on the bread aisles are more varied than ever — a selection Bobrow-Strain effectively details in his insightful chronology.

Like Krampner, he presents a broad but balanced look at an everyday item. Whatever our budgets or preferences, we can still break bread. And spread peanut butter on it, if we like.

A frequent contributor to Culinate, Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, California.

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by Bill Guerrant on Sep 26, 2013 at 3:52 AM PDT

Interesting article, fascinating history. But about a tip of the hat to George Washington Carver, the man who usually comes to mind when we think of the popularity of peanut butter?

2. by mm leon on Oct 11, 2013 at 6:48 PM PDT

White bread, peanut butter, sans jelly is what’s referred to as a “choke sandwich’. In the absence of the lubricating properties the jelly, jam, honey, syrup renders, the bread and peanut butter concoction becomes lodged at the top of the throat until numerous attempts at swallowing prove successful. Of course it starts all over again with another bite.

3. by Robert Seger on Nov 15, 2013 at 7:58 AM PST

I think this article sounds like a great idea.

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