Monday, November 19, 2012

Creamy and Crunch by Jon Krampner - Book Review

November is National Peanut Butter Lovers Month, which makes it an appropriate time to publish Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All American Food by Jon Krampner (Columbia University Press, 2013, 298 pages, $27.96) positions itself as an interesting and sometimes amusing story of the history and sociology of common peanut butter, but emerges as a discussion of an American food product that has enormous resonance in the childhood and youth of almost all Americans as well as a case study of the progress of American business in the twentieth century. On almost all levels it stands as an interesting and useful book to read.

The peanut emerged as a good food source in the depths of human history, perhaps as long as 3000 years ago. Krampner attributes its source as perhaps Bolivia and perhaps West Africa where ground peanuts were used as a food source. Peanuts are high in nutritional value as well as calories and have the added benefit of returning nutrients to the soil, unlike cotton, which depletes it. When the boll weevil destroyed cotton as a commercial crop in the southern United States during the 1920's, peanuts emerged as a profitable cash crop for southern farmers, especially in Georgia, N. Florida, Virginia, Texas, and Oklahoma. George Washington Carver, the food scientist from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama is often credited with having discovered and publicized many uses for the peanut, but the claim that he invented peanut butter is apparently untrue. W.K. Kellogg made a kind of peanut paste in his sanatorium in the late 19th century and others also ground peanuts into a paste that became popular and abundant as marketers sought to find successful uses for the agricultural product which soon replaced cotton in the South.

The book is reminiscent of John McPhee's ground breaking book Oranges, an extended essay first published in the New Yorker, which tells more about the growth, uses, and culture of the sweet citrus fruit without ever losing the reader's interest. In Creamy and Crunchy Krampner explores the chemistry and biology of the various kinds of peanuts, examining their growability as well as their flavor when applied to making peanut butter. He shows the spread of peanut butter manufacture and distribution, saying that at one time almost every city with a population of over 30,000 had a peanut butter factory. He emphasizes the family nature of early peanut butter manufacture and then details the concentration of peanut butter into the hands of few large companies as technology for making more stable peanut butter that did not become rancid emerged and spread. Along the way he introduces the reader to many of the business pioneers who built fortunes out of peanut butter as well as the quirky individuals who sought to market variants different in taste, texture, and appeal. During the second world war, peanut butter became an important commodity both when added to C and K rations distributed to the military and on the home front in America as a healthy substitute for meat, which was rationed. With this demand the farming, processing, and marketing of peanut butter became consolidated in a few companies which were eventually absorbed into the corporate food giants dominating today. From dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of brands of peanut butter, today's market is dominated by Jif, Skippy, and Peter Pan. This story reads like a model for the emergence of corporate giants throughout the world as smaller business units are absorbed into more efficient, but do not necessarily produce healthier or better tasting food.

In economics there is a rule of thumb holding that in any mature market there will emerge only three competitors while additional products will appear only in niche markets. The automotive big three (Chrysler, General Motors, Ford) are examples of this. Economies of scale work to promote more efficiency in manufacture, greater consolidation in distribution, and less innovation in product. The stories of how each of the three major manufacturers of peanut butter emerged from smaller, family owned businesses that were founded in the 1920's and 30's comprises a large portion of this book. Poor management, over-expansion, or lack of family interest in the business all contributed to the eventual takeover of peanut butter companies and their consolidation into the corporate giants which have bought, owned, and themselves been consolidated in multi-national corporations. Meanwhile, the competition has concentrated more on building brand loyalty than creating a product of an increasingly varied and interesting nature.

In their unceasing efforts to reduce costs and increase profits, the peanut producers took bigger risks with sanitation and careful production which, when combined with the lax regulatory efforts of the G.W. Bush administration and the political pressure of the peanut industry itself created a drive to reduce the percentage of peanuts in peanut butter and introduce health risks. This eventually led to a number of incidents of Salmonella being introduced into several brands of peanut butter produced by the Peanut Corporation of America which resulted in a number of deaths and hundred of reports of illness from which a national peanut butter scare emerged. At the same time there were a number of incidents of illness and death from e.coli occurring in certain crops and meat products. During this period a number of “gourmet” peanut butter products emerged featuring different flavors, textures, and degrees of sweetness. The word “gourmet,” when applied to peanut butter may seem to be an oxymoron, but distribution of alternative peanut butter products during the last two decades has been widespread (pun intended). When Jif was finally sold to Smucker's, employees said they were glad to return to a family owned enterprise where food values were sustained.

A brighter story is to be found in the emergence of peanut butter products being developed and distributed in the third world as an antidote to starvation. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, several small companies working with non-governmental organizations like Doctors Without Borders have produced and distributed millions of packets of a high energy peanut-based based product that is clean, palatable, and effective in reducing starvation, particularly among children. Called RUTF's (ready to eat therapeutic foods) the packets contain peanut butter, milk, sugar, vitamins and minerals. A three ounce packet of Plumpy-Nut has 300 calories. It has also had an impact in Niger, the poorest country in the world, and in quake ravaged Haiti. It's interesting to contrast the efforts of the Peanut Corporation of America with the story of RUTF's in the third world where peanut butter fights starvation while encouraging local producers, thus supporting the economy.

Jon Krampner

Jon Krampner has written this interesting and enjoyable study of the peanut butter industry which also functions as a case study of the flaws in what happens when the industrial model is applied to the food industry without adequate regulation. The book retains its charm through the use of frequent profiles of peanut butter's pioneers, personal stories of the author's travels to learn the story, and the inclusion of a number of what read like delicious peanut butter recipes, including a couple of Elvis Presley specials. The book is marred by occasional repetitiveness as when Krampner tells the story of the effect of the boll weevil at least three times. Jon Krampner is the author of two previous books and lives in Los Angeles. Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All American Food by Jon Krampner is published by the Columbia University Press (2013, 298 pages, $27.95). It is carefully sourced and annotated and contains an extensive index. The book was provided to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through