I’m still enjoying the winter break, and hard at work on the next series of podcasts, so here’s another newsletter, for now.
The peanut papers
Just in time for National Peanut Butter Day in the US (January 24), The Smithsonian magazine has published A Brief History of Peanut Butter in its Innovation section. It is indeed brief, omitting, for example, a patent that predates the one granted to John Harvey Kellogg by more than a decade. But it does contain lots of other interesting bits and bobs, like the fact that peanut butter was originally the preserve of richer people who could afford to send themselves to Kellogg’s sanitarium.
World War One hastened its adoption more widely, to provide protein on meatless Mondays. Though the American nation took to peanut butter, two inventions speeded the process. In 1921, Joseph Rosefield patented a method to partially hydrogenate the oil in peanut butter, turning it into a harder fat that removed the need to stir in any oil that separated from the peanut butter during storage. Rosefield built the Skippy brand on his invention, and in my opinion achieved PB sainthood by putting bits of peanut back into his improved, creamier butter, thereby creating crunchy peanut butter. A much more dubious “improvement” came in the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble added sugar and molasses to Jif, destroying the purity of peanut butter and cementing their reputation as satanists in my eyes.
You will have gathered that I am a fan. I did once find myself without peanut butter (which was much harder to source in Rome even 10 years ago) and with a strong desire for some. I made my own, and it was sensationally good, although it did strain my little blender something awful. In my ideal world, there would be a hippy-dippy food coop round the corner where I could grind myself a fresh tub of the stuff whenever necessary.
Kellogg’s vision of peanut butter as akin to medicine reached its apotheosis in Plumpy’Nut, peanut butter fortified with extra fats, fibre, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals. It was designed, by a French paediatrician and a food engineer, as a ready-to-eat food to treat severe malnourishment and wasting, and it does that very well. (Possibly an example of near-simultaneous independent discovery.) One huge advantage is that it can be eaten direct from its foil pouch, with no need to mix with potentially risky water. It can be given at home too, greatly reducing the cost of treatment, and children like it. (“No wonder,” says critic Marion Nestle, who pointed out that up to one-third of the calories in a package of Plumpy’Nut come from sugar.)
The big problem with Plumpy’Nut was that a French manufacturing company held patents in several countries. Nutriset, the company in question, defended its patents vigorously, preventing anything resembling Plumpy’Nut being manfactured at far lower cost in the famine-struck countries that needed it most.
This all blew up in 2010, with Saying “Nuts” to Hunger, a detailed critique in The Huffington Post of an article extolling the virtues of the product and its maker. Nutriset responded in part by increasing investment in partners who manufacture Plumpy’Nut locally. And there have been efforts to expand the use of Plumpy’Nut and other ready-to-use therapeutic foods to prevent, rather than treat, severe acute malnutrition, which may or may not be a good idea. I don’t honestly know what the current state of play is with ready-to-use therapeutic foods, but I do know that Nutriset’s US and EU patents expired in 2017 and 2018. You can still buy it from them, but by now there may well be cheaper, equally good alternatives elsewhere.
Hot tea with your PB&J?
While January 24th is given over to National Peanut Butter Day in the US, the entire month is apparently National Hot Tea Month. Don’t blame me …
Anyway, if you aren’t fed up with tea or its history, you can find lots of splendid talks and whatnot listed by the indefatigable Patricia Bixler Reber. Perhaps I’ll see you, virtually, at some of them.
Cinnamon and Sri Lanka
You can’t really know what you’re getting when you buy ready-ground cinnamon. The chances are it is not true cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) but cassia (C. cassia) instead, because it is cheaper and tastes almost as good. That much many people know, but an interesting article about the history of the spice contains fascinating details about true cinnamon and how it is produced in Sri Lanka.
The article explains that cinnamon was used 4000 years ago in Egypt, a long way from its origin, and how its source was protected by a wonderfully fanciful story, retold by Herodotus and scoffed at by Pliny the Edler. It also, as is so common in articles like this, repeats many of the medicinal claims made on cinnamon’s behalf. Some, no doubt, have some merit, many others probably don’t. So while I love the flavour it imparts to some of my favourite dishes, I don’t expect it to be doing me any specific good.
As to names, I was tickled to discover that the accepted scientific name for true cinnamon Cinnamomum verum predates Cinnamomum zeylanicum, which reflects its geographical origin and which you will still find in use, by a couple of years, just like those fanciful tales, concealing its birthplace.
For true devotees of domestication
A couple of issues ago I linked to a piece from the website Small Things Considered on the micro-organisms that make yoghurt. Roberto Kolter is still on that track, with a new post about The Wonders of Microbial Domestication. It’s actually a link to a review paper that he describes as “a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the subject”. The paper thus duly attaches itself to the end of my reading list, but even if you’re not that interested, Roberto makes a fascinating point about two absolutely essential microbes, Aspergillus oryzae (sake, miso, soy sauce) and Rhizopus oligosporus (tempeh):
[T]hese were domesticated from Aspergillus flavus and Rhizopus microsporus. … Thing is, both of these ancestors produce numerous toxins that one would certainly not want to consume in fermented foods. How were humans, thousands of years ago, able to “breed out” these toxic traits when they were not really aware that they were dealing with microbes?
It makes you think. Which, really, is all I aim to do.
Take care, and stay safe.
p.s. 1946 peanut butter advert. Can any Australians confirm that it is “known is some States as Peanut Paste“?