Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Peanuts

Herewith a repost of a 2009 item on LaMarotte, in a version of that blog that is no longer on the web. The occasion is a story in the New York Times this morning telling the world that William F. Buckley Jr. had been a “peanut butter freak.” A good day for peanut butter! Brigitte and I also count among the enthusiasts. Herewith that post.

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One night my father brought home a five-pound can of something. He said he didn’t know what it was, but we should try it. Mother opened the can. The contents were a light shade of oily brown. She took a spoon, took some, and tried it. “Ummmm,” she said, approvingly. She gave each of us a spoonful too. In moments we all had spoons and we were eating this strange stuff, right from the can. In a single session that night, we emptied that huge container down to its very bottom—and then scraped out the remains.

We had just encountered one of the great foods of America. Peanut butter. The stuff was a great hit because we were always starved for oils and protein then. Needless to say, I voted for Jimmy Carter when he ran for president—remembering that memorable night. 
[From Majd Amerikába, a family memoir]

The scene just described took place around about 1947. My family was in Germany, in a small town called Tirschenreuth. Patton’s Army had occupied this region; it had become the American Zone and thus came to be exposed to the radiant light of the distant U.S. economy. My father, a soldier, had lost his left arm fighting the Russians as part of the Hungarian Army; after his recovery he had been assigned to the Hungarian Military Academy as a professor. That Academy had moved west as the Russian forces advanced into Hungary, and there in Tirschenreuth, this unarmed but still military unit surrendered to General Patton’s soldiers. The event—I mean the epiphany of peanut butter—took place two years after the war ended for us. My father endeavored then to support us all by trading on the Black Market, and he had just scored a five-pound can. The family’s relationship to peanut butter, which is on the level of a kind of cult, endures strong and loyal to this day, some sixty-two years later. Brigitte is a latecomer in that it took her ten years longer to escape East Germany and thus come into the Zone of Heavenly Oils. Her reaction to the oily brown stuff, however, was exactly the same as ours.

According to the World Book Encyclopedia, the peanut is a legume, thus the fruit of a seed or pod-bearing plant. Peas and beans are classified the same way; so are clover, alfalfa, and soybeans. Horses and cattle therefore also have some chance to feel true happiness. The plant gathers sunlight in a bushy sort of way above the ground. The peanut plant’s flowers sprout on its lowest branches from slender stems; as they wilt the stems droop; drooping, they stiffen; their stem-tips harden into so-called pegs. When these pegs touch the dirt, they begin to dig down into the soil and, buried there, finally, they transform themselves into peanut pods. The illustration inserted here is courtesy of Mother Agriculture also known as the USDA. Georgia dominates peanut growing; its farmers grow more than half of all the peanuts sold. Other blessed states are Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia (in order of importance). We were privileged to live in Virginia close to the living peanut plant itself.

PeanutButterLovers.com (link) informs me that peanut butter in the modern sense came into being in 1890 when a physician in St. Louis encouraged a food producer, George A. Bayle Jr., to make and sell ground peanut-paste. The physician, whose name is lost to history but who is certainly well-known in heaven, had supposedly tested the product by grinding peanuts experimentally and tasted the resulting product by taking a spoonful. He probably said: “Ummmm!” He intended to produce a nutritious food for people with poor teeth—and this was a real winner. Kelloggs obtained the first patent for a “process of preparing nut meal” in 1895. The rest, as they say, is history.

This morning we got to the bottom of a jar of our favorite brand, Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter. It takes us a mere two days to finish a jar, and the final act is to scrape the last bit of tiny product from the glass. Brigitte likes to do that with a spoon, and the activity produces a kind of clicking sound. This morning that reminded me of 1947 when I first heard that sound, although then the clicking came from metal hitting metal. And the memory inspired me to write this. One cannot praise peanuts, and peanut butter, frequently and ardently enough.

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