July 21, 2019

This is all about peanuts, peanuts, peanuts.

By John Guy LaPlante

With 3 photos

Why all about peanuts? Good question.

Well, I eat peanuts every day, as peanut butter on my breakfast raisin-cinnamon bagel, then crowning it with banana slices. With a cup of black tea.

I also drop a few peanuts into my oatmeal along with raisins.

Peanuts in bottle, peanuts in shells, this is what got me musing.

And now and then I toss a few salted peanuts into my mouth.

Nothing surprising about this. Hey, I have read that 90 percent of American homes stock peanuts, most often as peanut butter.

Well, let me tell you about a recent stop at a new supermarket. I spotted a nice big bag of peanuts in their shells, mind you. It’s rare that I buy them that way. Jumbo peanuts. Lightly salted. And the bag had a plastic window. I could see the peanuts in the bag. Big. Beautiful. I tossed the bag into my shopping cart.

One evening, after dinner, I started enjoying a few of these beauties, cracking one open, then another, then another.

I wondered how they salt peanuts still in their shell.  No idea.

And I started musing about other things. When I start musing, I’ve got to watch out. Never sure where musing will take me.

Why was I going to this trouble of cracking, cracking? Why not just scoop up a handful from the bottle in my cupboard?

Well, because cracking them open is fun. Yes, fun, although afterward I’d have to brush up the shells.

Four peanuts — excuse me, four pods . Like us. Basically the same. Individually different.

And hey, I figured out these whole peanuts were costing me more than the peanuts in the bottle, with no need to crack, crack. No doubt about it. In fact, I’d have to buy three bags of them, maybe four, to get as many peanuts as a full bottle of them. These in the shell were no bargain.  Well, sometimes we have to pay more for our fun, don’t we?

Then I noticed some peanuts in the shell were larger than others. I could see that one pod – which is the right word, I’m told – had two peanuts inside. Another, three. A few, just one. How come?

Well, the pods are just like people, I thought. Basically alike. But individually different.

And that got me off on a Google / Wikipedia exploration of peanuts. Exciting. Fun. I got to bed two hours later than my usual time.

First of all, peanuts have a long history. The ancient Aztecs of South America grew them. They smashed them into a paste. A kind of butter. But not as good as ours. Less oil. No sugar.

Here in our country, I found out, peanuts grow just about exclusively in our southern states, but few south of Georgia or west of Texas.

I thought peanuts are peanuts. Hah! There are three main varieties, let alone subcategories. I read of one national dealer

The great black peanut scientist George Washington Carver.

who offers 60 varieties!

The three main ones are Runner peanuts, considered best for peanut butter, which takes 80 percent of the crop. Virginia peanuts, which are grown not only in Virginia, 15 percent. And Spanish peanuts so-called, 4 percent.

No way would I be able to tell one from another. Ditto you, I’ll bet.

Because they are called peanuts, many people consider them nuts. That seems to make sense. Not so. Nuts grow on trees. Peanuts are seeds, They grow in the ground.

Peanuts are an annual herbaceous plant. Live only one season. Farmers have to start over from scratch every year.

They look like garden pea plants but are part of the large legume family — those plants which grow pods.

They grow 1 foot to 1.5 feet high. About up to your knee.

It’s widely known that peanuts are much cheaper than nuts. One reason is that a single plant can yield 50 to 100 pods, and each pod can yield 1 to 5 peanuts. And they are down by our feet, not up in a tree.

About harvesting them, do not think of a farmer with a hoe working his way down a row, uprooting the plants and tugging the pods free and dumping them in a pail. No! No!

Think of huge tractors! Huge harvesters! I saw photos. Enormous!

Sometimes I worry about eating peanuts. Fattening! Not really. One cupful, which is a lot of peanuts, has 828 calories.  So says Consumer Reports, which is a pretty good authority on such subjects, don’t you think? It says, “That sounds high, but the fat is good fat.”

I am sure that like me, you call them “peanuts.”  But some folks in other parts of the country call them “groundnuts,” which makes sense. Others call them “goobers,” which makes no sense at all to me.

I’m sure that the best PR man the peanut industry has had over the years has been Jimmy Carter. Yes, our former president.

He grew up on a peanut farm run by his pa and ma in Plains, GA. Peanuts were a part of his daily life. As a boy he saw how they were planted and harvested, even spent time working in the fields.

He got to see what an essential part of the economy they were down there.

We know his story. It’s so well known. He went to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, served as a submarine officer, then after a few years quit and went back home to Georgia. To work in the family peanut business.

And that led to his interest in politics, leading to his becoming governor of Georgia, a BIG peanut state, and eventually being elected to the White House. Time and again we heard the story of Jimmy in Plains and peanuts, peanuts, peanuts.

Well, I told you how so much of the crop gets made into peanut butter.

But we also consume peanuts in other ways. Tons and tons are processed into peanut oil, which is used in many ways. Do you make popcorn at home? Long ago I found the best oil to make the best popcorn is peanut oil. I keep a small bottle just for that.

And peanuts are the basis of countless recipes. I Googled “peanut recipes.” I found one site with 235 recipes!

It’s surprising how much candy includes peanuts. Think of Butter Finger, Baby Ruth, Mr. Goodbar, Reeses NutRageous, Kracker Jack, and others.

Hey, there’s a National Peanut Board, supported by the peanut industry to promote the use of peanuts in every way imaginable. And there’s the USDA Peanut Lab, which is part of the US Department of Agriculture. Peanuts are a big deal. I had no idea they are that big.

By the way, what do you think is the most popular supermarket brand. My guess was Planters Peanuts. And I was right. Was that your guess? Be honest now.

But if there’s a single person who deserves to be honored with a big statue for developing peanuts into such a big deal, it’s George Washington Carver, 1864 – 1943.

I first learned about him back in history class in the 7th or 8th grade. Lots of people learn about him that way.  Such an unusual and interesting man. In fact, extraordinary.

He was a black man, in fact born a slave. Think about that! A rare black (back then) to graduate from the University of Iowa. He spent most of his long career at the Tuskegee Institute, a private, historically black school in Tuskegee, Alabama. Now Tuskegee University.

He was a botanist, agricultural scientist, and inventor. Wow! To repeat, born a slave!

He became THE expert on peanuts (and sweet potatoes and other plants). He gets the credit of discovering the importance of rotating crops — peanuts with corn and things — as the practical way to put nitrogen back into the soil and making the soil more productive.

Yes, and an inventor. One of his many pamphlets was “How to Grow the Peanut, and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.”  Imagine, 105 ways!

He’s the one who made the peanut a staple in our diet.

Obviously he was the first to concoct peanut butter. Many people think that.  But he did not. Quite a surprise. If  he had continued experimenting, that might have become his 102nd way.

Three people living far apart get credit for that. Who never met. The most famous was Dr. John Harry Kellogg, around 1895, the inventor of Kellogg’s cereal.

Did you know that’s why it’s called Kellogg’s? Which comes in various versions now, as we know.

But it’s that cereal that made him famous, not his recipe for peanut butter.

I will let you go to Wikipedia to find out who were the other two to figure out how to mix up peanut butter.

Professor Carver’s accomplishments were so great and his influence so profound as a scientist and a black man that it’s remarkable how many ways he has been honored ever since. There are cities and towns named for him, boulevards and streets, on and on, even a large ship. He’s in all our history books, not only for his extraordinary success, but also because he was born a slave. He’s really worth reading about.

What’s interesting is that he’s always written about as George Washington Carver. Never as George W. Carver. He always identified himself with all three names. Why the emphasis on “Washington”? Did he mean George? Seems so. Have any idea?

Well, I told you that when I begin musing I am not sure where that will take me. Now you have an idea. Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.

And it’s time for lunch. I skipped breakfast this morning. So I think I’ll have what I would have had for breakfast.

If you don’t remember, it’s half a raisin – cinnamon bagel slathered with peanut butter and covered with slices of banana. But with a glass of milk instead of my morning tea. And an apple for dessert. Delicious. Nutritious. And not that monstrous in calories.

Thank you, Professor Carver! And Doctor Kellogg! And Johnny Appleseed!

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