The humble peanut: A versatile ingredient, or tasty all by itself

Peanuts have been a fan favourite for years, but do you know about their important walk through history? Today, many enjoy roasted peanuts at the ball game, a classic PB&J for lunch or even as a new beer flavour (yes, this is now a thing!), but the peanut’s vital role in Southern agricultural history dates back to the early 1900s with inventor George Washington Carver.

Peanuts are believed to have originated in South America, particularly around Paraguay, before crossing the ocean to Europe with explorers and spreading to Asia and Africa. Peanuts made their way to North America with the African slave trade. Peanut pioneer George Washington Carver himself was born into slavery. As a child, Carver was known as the “plant doctor” and was regularly called upon by neighbours to “cure” sick plants. He became the first black student and the first black faculty member at what is now Iowa State University.

Later, Carver ran the new Tuskegee Institute’s agricultural department, where he conducted research and training in methods of rotating crops of peanuts with cotton. In 1916, he published a booklet titled “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption” in response to the boll weevil crisis that was destroying Alabama’s cotton crop. Soon, peanuts became the main economic driver in the south. Cotton oil mills were converted to produce peanut oil and livestock was fed peanut plants.

With a huge surplus of peanuts on the market, Carver started developing alternate uses for the crop, including chili sauce, peanut-lemon punch, caramel, peanut sausage, mayonnaise and coffee. Other non-edible inventions include shampoo, shaving cream, glue, insecticides, charcoal, rubber, nitroglycerine, plastics and axle grease. He even tried to come up with a polio-curing peanut oil.

Although the beginning of the peanut plant is very humble, peanuts are now an important staple in our homes. According to a 2013-2014 survey, nine out of ten (94 per cent) Canadian consumers keep peanuts, peanut butter or both in their house. The average Canadian eats 2.7kg of peanuts per year!

Sources: The Advocate, Peanut Bureau of Canada