Ground Nuts, Goober Peas and Peanut Butter: A History of our Favourite Spread

peanut butter

Aah peanut butter.  Where would we be without you?  From peanut butter on toast for breakfast, to peanut butter sandwiches for lunch to ants-on-a-log for snack, we are a generation raised on the gooey, nutty spread.  And while allergies and the subsequent rise of other spreads like almond butter, sunflower seed butter and cashew butter have taken some of peanut butter’s spot light, we will always have a special place in our hearts for the stuff because it’s as they say- you never forget your first love.

Who Gets the Creds?

So who invented peanut butter?  There is some debate there as to whether or not it was the Aztecs or Africans who were the first to grind peanuts into a paste.  The practice of adding ground-up peanuts (or “ground nuts”, as they were called) into soups and stews has been a staple in African cooking since the 1400s (more on that tomorrow!), however there is also evidence that the Ancient Aztecs were the first ones to grind peanuts into a paste.

chris columbus

Christopher Columbus is often credited with discovering the peanut (note: not peanut butter) when he came across them in South America where the Inca tribe used the legume in religious ceremonies and burial rites to feed spirits on the way to the afterlife.  He and other spanish explorers loved them so much that they brought them back with them over to Africa and China.  As we know “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” (sorry, we couldn’t resist) which conflicts with evidence that Africans have been using crushed peanuts long before then, and Chinese civilisations have been using peanuts to make creamy sauces for centuries.  Sorry, Chris- but your facts just don’t add up right.

Peanuts in America

Regardless of who gets invention creds, we think it’s fair to say that peanut butter has become a staple in the North American diet.  In fact, Americans eat enough peanut butter each year to coat the bottom of the Grand Canyon!  That’s 3 pounds/person, in case you’re wondering.

During the Civil War, peanuts fueled American soldiers out on the battlefield.  Peanuts had been brought over to America by African slaves who referred to them as “Nguba”, after the region where they were most populous.  American colonists interpreted this as “goober”.  Soldiers crushed up these “goober peas” into a paste to fuel them through battle, and thus the world was graced with the song “Eat Your Goober Peas”.  

You may also find it interesting to know that U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Thomas Jefferson were both peanut farmers.  Peanut farmer-turned president seems like a logical progression.

Another peanut butter misconception is that George Washington Carver was the inventor of the spread.  He researched plant biology at Tuskegee University with a focus on the development of new uses for crops and is known for promoting 300 uses for peanuts including plastics, paints, dyes and gasoline.  Yes, gas.  


So we know you’re probably thinking who the #!?! invented peanut butter then?  The actual process of manufacture and machinery is credited to three different inventors and/or doctors.marcellus gilmore edson

In 1884 Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Montreal, Canada patented “peanut paste”, which was made by milling roasted peanuts between two heated surfaces.  Can somebody please explain why this man is not considered a national hero?  Please?

John Harvey Kellogg

A few years later in 1895 Dr. John Harvey Kellogg patented the process of making peanut butter from raw peanuts as a healthy protein substitute for patients with no teeth at his hospital/health retreat the Battle Creek Sanitarium.  If you feel like diving into a weird world, do some research on John Harvey Kellogg.  The man who invented corn flakes was an…interesting…guy.

Then finally in 1903 Dr. Ambrose Straub of St. Louis, Missouri, patented a peanut butter-making machine.

The peanut butter these guys made was much more like the all-natural stuff you find in the organic aisle at the grocery store.  It was basically just crushed up peanuts, which meant as it sat you would get oil separation.  So how did we get from that to the more whipped-like consistency that our moms spread on our sandwiches growing up?

It took a few years, but in 1922 a chemist by the name of Joseph Rosefield made smooth peanut butter with no oil separation by adding partially-hydrogenated oil. (yum?)  In 1928 he licensed his invention to a company that made Peter Pan Peanut Butter.

Peter Pan Peanut butter

We guess he got tired of someone else getting creds for his invention, because 10 years later in 1932 he started producing his own peanut butter under a name that we’re sure you all recognize- Skippy.

So there it is- you can always count on the Aztecs for inventing something delicious and highly nutritious, and on North Americans for making it significantly less healthy in the name of aesthetics!
Ps- don’t forget to check out our video of the delicious peanut butter recipe we made, and to check back on the blog tomorrow for the recipe!

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