As American as Peanut Butter

BY KUDRAT WADHWA

Peanut butter has played and continues to play a very important role in many U.S. households. From being an integral part of the U.S. government’s rationing strategy in the early and mid 1900′s, to peanuts as a sign of luck in NASA, there is nothing more quintessentially ‘American’ than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Meat was scarce during the world wars and thus, the U.S. government urged Americans to consume less of it to support soldiers fighting overseas. Alternatively, vegetarian protein sources like peanut butter and cottage cheese were marketed vociferously toward consumers. While gender and class were not explicitly invoked in these advertisements, there are certainly subtle messages regarding the above, especially since peanut butter was marketed as a sign of patriotism to consumers of whom most were women. Moreover, peanut butter was also advertised to mothers as an essential food product to show love and care to their children.

Thus, peanut butter served to construct heteronormative gender roles during the World Wars by emphasizing family, mothering, and idealized femininity alongside patriotism, thrift and sacrifice.

Today, despite peanut butter’s contradicting associations as comfort as well as health food, some studies show that it is consumed in over 90% homes in the United States.  But, that is not the whole story.

To some immigrants, peanut butter serves as yet another symbol of their ‘otherness’, and when families on the SNAP Program think of peanut butter, they are reminded of a “thick and dry” spread fit for consumption only in the form of cookies. In addition to presenting the gender component of peanut butter’s history, this exhibit also tells stories that are not included in the mainstream today.


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A photograph of an antique Bayle Peanut Butter Tin, antiqueadvertising.com

Peanut butter has been used for centuries and was popular amongst the Aztecs, the Incas and even in some African countries where it was added to stews. Particularly in the U.S., there seems to remain a confusion regarding the inventor of peanut butter. Some sources state that it was John Harvey Kellogg, from Kellogg’s corn flakes, whereas some others argue that the credit should go to George A. Bayle. While Kellogg filed a patent in 1895 for a ‘food compound’ made by grinding peanuts into a paste or butter-like substance, Kellogg’s recipe called for nuts that were boiled in water for four to six hours which would create a product very different from contemporary peanut butter.

The above is an image of an antique Peanut butter tin in which Bayle’s peanut butter was sold after he invented it in mid-1890s. Bayle served as the president of the moderately successful George A. Bayle Company, until its fall in 1920.


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Food conservation propaganda poster from WWI, today.uconn.edu

 This is a propaganda poster released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the period of World War I, which was a crucial period in U.S. history as consumers were urged by the government to decrease their consumption of meat in order to support soldiers fighting overseas. While peanut butter is not explicitly featured in this particular poster, I wanted to include this picture to give a sense of the kind of language used to influence consumers. There is an image of a soldier in a running position with his gun pointed toward a supposed target and the poster tries to appeal to a sense of patriotism in the consumer because it directly asks the audience to cut their consumption of the above food groups and send them to soldiers. It is interesting to note that the consumers would not be sending food to soldiers themselves, but by using the imperative form of the verb ‘send’, the consumer feels a deeper connection with the receiver and is more inclined to support him. While this specific poster does not provide any protein substitutes, there were some others that listed cottage cheese and even peanut butter as acceptable protein substitutes. As Neuhaus writes in her book ‘Manly Meals and Mom’s home cooking’, this was also around the time that ‘scientific cookery’ became popular which involved identifying the nutritional content of one’s food and hence, the rhetoric around eating a certain amount of protein fits well into the socio-cultural context of this time period.


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Peter Pan advertisement from the 1940s, midcenturymenu.com

Neuahaus mentions in her book that by the year 1941, cookbook authors became less concerned with the nutritional content of the food and began to sell cooking as an “artistic and creative outlet for intelligent, dainty, middle class ladies.” While this is an advertisement and not a recipe in a cookbook, there is certainly some overlap between that concept and the features of this ad.

Firstly, the face of Peter Pan peanut butter, a company that started in 1920 and is still in business, is a white middle class woman. This deliberate choice tells us about the market segment that Peter Pan was aiming to target. Furthermore, this advertisement also communicates to the audience characteristics that are prized in women as she appears to be ‘dainty’ and graceful while posing with her slice of bread and peanut butter. But, there is a paradox here because on the logo of the jar, the same woman is portrayed as standing with her chest outward with a rather masculine body language. This could be an allusion to ‘Rosie the Riveter’ or the concept of women not only as homemakers, but also as responsible members of society, especially if we consider the number of women who were recruited to work outside their home by the U.S. government during the period of World War II. So, we can gather that the ideal woman around the year 1943 is white, middle-class, sensitive, elegant, likes to cook but at the same time, is strong and would sacrifice for her country.


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Peter Pan print advertisement from WWII, hobbydb.com

This print advertisement, released during the Second World War and specifically in the year 1944, is a great example of combining patriotism and mothering and selling that to consumers. This advertisement not only presumes a heteronormative society, but also presumes that it is mothers and not fathers who are primarily concerned with their children’s lunch boxes. Additionally, it tries to sell a certain persona of ‘Mrs. America’, a woman who is a fantastic mother and wife because she wants to cook for her husband and children and wants to ensure that they actually like their food. The neologism of the superlative ‘eating-est’ meaning most delicious or ‘most likely to be eaten’ reinforces the idea that ‘Mrs. America’ would ensure that her family is fed the best food available. Furthermore, the very name ‘Mrs. America’ shows that women must strive to prove their patriotism by being this persona and by consuming and serving peanut butter to their family.


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Peanut butter cookies, lickthebowlgood.blogspot.com

In the 60’s and 70’s, families and individuals on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), previously known as the Food Stamps program, received supplementary food items including Velveeta cheese, powdered milk, and a thick spread that was supposed to be peanut butter.

Peanut butter is an economical source of protein and was thus distributed by the government. However, the kind that the government gave out is described by some as inedible and the only way to ingest that was to either mix the jar of peanut butter with another of honey or to bake peanut cookies with the spread.


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Photograph taken by me, 2016

While the U.S. prides itself on being a ‘melting pot’ or a home to a host of cultures from around the world, there is undoubtedly a specific image of the ‘American’. Peanut butter is one of the many symbols that serves to create this ‘hegemonic’ American who is white and middle class.

The picture above tries to capture the feelings of Queztal Maucci, an Argentinian and Peruvian-American immigrant who describes being ‘American’ but never truly feeling like one. She writes,

“Technically, I am an American, but that label doesn’t quite seem to fit. For much of my childhood I felt tension between the culture I was immersed in at school and the culture that my mothers kept alive within our home, the one I returned to each night. I ate milanesas and lomo saltado, while my friends at school had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and spoke about their excitement for a holiday I never celebrated, Thanksgiving.”


 

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Photograph of the peanut butter statues in Georgia, roadarch.com

Through the lens of peanut butter, this exhibit looked at how ideals of femininity were reinforced during the World Wars.

It then moved on to examine stories that are excluded in the mainstream narrative, including stories of immigrants and those belonging to a lower socio-economic class.

Peanut butter is my absolute favorite food and I can eat spoonfuls in a single sitting so this particular topic was truly very close to my heart. I was surprised in learning about the history of peanut butter and also the role of the government and corporations that sold not only peanut butter, but also a certain lifestyle to consumers.

Finally, I would like to conclude my exhibit with this photograph of the Peanut statue erected in Blakely, Georgia as a symbol of their love and appreciation for peanut butter. These are sentiments that I too feel towards peanut butter and believe that this particular photograph is an appropriate ending to my exhibit.

Main Image Photo Credit: Public Lives Secret Recipes

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