By Mary Carter
George Washington Carver discovered more than 300 uses for peanuts, but peanut butter was not one of them. He did discover the deliciousness of roasting and salting our favorite legume (technically they’re not nuts), though evidence of an edible peanut paste extends well before Carver’s time.
Still, we can thank him for an uptick in peanut production in the United States when he encouraged farmers to plant peanuts to replenish the niacin in soil that had been depleted by cotton. Many farmers today use Carver’s method of rotating their peanut crop with other row crops, such as corn and soybeans, every three or four years.
Most U.S. peanuts come from Georgia and other Southern states, including Tennessee. The plants enjoy our region’s soil and warm climate. They grow in runners, with varieties including Virginia, Valencia and Spanish. The growth cycle – from planting to harvest – totals about five months. Farmers typically plant peanuts after the last frost and harvest them in September or October.
China and India, however, are the top producers in the world, making up more than half of total production. They consume most of their peanuts in the form of peanut oil, which can withstand high frying temperatures without smoking or burning and has a great flavor. (Related: Nutritional information about peanuts, pecans and pistachios.)
Europeans use very few peanuts at all. I remember being shocked when our German exchange student had her first PB&J when she was 18 years old. What in the world had her mother been packing in her lunch … Nutella? She was so delighted by the creamy and wonderful treat that I sent peanut butter to Germany for several years after she left us. This American staple is simply not available on her store shelves.
U.S. peanut consumption began as animal food. Roasting revealed its wonderful flavors, and we went wild with candies and Cracker Jacks. Peanut butter became a protein staple in World War II. Today, Americans spend almost $800 million a year on peanut butter alone. In fact, when you tally up all peanut products, they contribute more than $4 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the National Peanut Board.
We love our peanuts. Though 1-2 percent of our population struggles with mild to extreme peanut allergies, the rest of us enjoy them in sweet, savory and snack foods. The following recipes show the versatility of the peanut, with a few nutty friends thrown in for variety. Click the photo to view the full recipe.