Peanut butter memories of America

I was thinking of America and early memories of tastes associated with it. I thought of peanut butter. The big jar of Jif Peanut Butter that my aunt brought from America was a novelty to me in Chennai, India. It was the early nineties, and I remember spreading a generous amount of peanut butter on bread for breakfast and licking the spoon clean before heading to school. I would then look forward to the evenings when I could have more. As a child, I liked eating groundnuts (another name for peanut, Arachis hypogea) dry roasted in sand in a cast iron pan by vendors in the beach by the Bay of Bengal, or when steamed and served with the shell at home. So, I could relate to the taste of peanut butter although it was lusciously different. Now, as I considered celebrating my early memories of American food, I decided to cook something that was familiar in taste yet something new just like my introduction to peanut butter.

 

Peanut plants grow in many parts of the world. How do you determine the geographical region where the plant first originated? Plants like every living being have genetic material (DNA) that determine their physical characteristics. However, DNA is not inherently static, it changes constantly and the local geography selects and propagates some of these changes through reproduction; in other words, characteristics of the plant that help it adapt to the local environment survive. Therefore, a collection of closely-related DNA sequences from a plant species can reveal ancestral relationships, with the oldest ancestor being the most different in sequence while still sharing significant similarities to the species. When these collections are obtained from a specific geographical region, that region becomes a source of origin. Based on obtaining DNA sequences from ancestral versions of the peanut plant, regions in South America such as Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and Argentina have been found to be the primary source of geographical origin of this plant (references 1 & 2).

Archaeological excavations are analyzed in terms of soil layers of different depths, deeper the layer, older the time period (where time is determined by radiocarbon dating). Excavations in Peru reveal charred peanut hulls dated to about 7800 years before present (about 5800 BCE) corresponding to the time period of hunter-gatherer lifestyle in that area (reference 3).

Now, peanuts are cultivated in different parts of the world. DNA sequence of peanut plants obtained from North America, Africa, Europe and Asia indicate more recent times of origin than those from South America. How did, for instance, the plant move from South to North America?

There seems to be no evidence of: Native Americans from South America introducing peanuts to the North; or peanuts in Africa before the Columbian Exchange in the 15th and 16th century; or peanuts in North America before the transatlantic slave trade began in the 16th century.

Thomas Jefferson in his Garden Book (1776-1824), has an entry in 1794 of growing  65 hills of "peendars" (the Merriam Webster dictionary lists "pindar" as a southern term for peanuts while the Dictionary and Grammar of the Kongo language by Rev. Holman Bentley (1887)  lists "mpinda" to mean groundnut in Kongo). The 1847 cookbook, The Carolina Housewife, written by Sarah Rutledge describes a groundnut soup recipe that has oysters; and the 1917 book, How to grow the peanut: and 105 ways of preparing it for human consumption, written by George Washington Carver starts with a recipe for peanut soup and includes variations that use peanut butter.

In Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine, historian James C. McCann describes groundnut stew recipes from the Western coast of Africa such as Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal; he also says, “The art of good cooking among the Bemba is to have sufficient ground-nut sauce to add to other relishes to make them palatable”. The social anthropologist, Esther Goody, in her essay, Ghanaian Groundnut Stew, in The Anthropologist’s Cookbook, says, “ During the colonial period [in Africa], groundnut stew was adapted by expatriates to the model of the Indian curry…”.

Here’s a method to prepare peanut butter chicken stew:

Peanut butter (freshly ground)

Chicken

Onions

Tomatoes

Ginger

Paprika or chilli powder

Cumin

Salt

Brown chicken pieces in chicken fat and set aside; sauté chopped onions and thinly sliced ginger for a few minutes in the same pot; add paprika, cumin, salt and stir; add chopped tomatoes to deglaze and cook for a few minutes; add enough peanut butter to obtain a creamy paste; add browned chicken and stir; add some water and cook at a gentle simmer till chicken is done and the sauce thickens. Check for seasoning and add some freshly squeezed lemon juice. Serve as is or with rice.

Peanut butter chicken stew
Peanut butter chicken stew

 

My wife sitting down to dinner visibly recovering from a long day at work, looked at the chicken stew I had made and said it looked nice. She tasted it, and with an expression of intrigue, wondered first about the color and then looked at me and said that something in the stew tasted very familiar and rich but she could not guess what. I mentioned peanut butter and my wife exclaimed, as did my daughter who said she likes peanut butter on bread while wiping her plate clean.

 

References

  1. History of Arachis including evidence of A.hypogea L. progenitors by Simpson CE et.al. in Peanut Science (2001) 28: 78-80
  2. The genome sequences of Arachis duranensis and Arachis ipaensis, the diploid ancestors of cultivated peanut by Bertioli DJ et.al. in Nature Genetics, vol. 48, number 4, April 2016
  3. Preceramic adoption of peanut, squash and cotton in Northern Peru by Dillehay TD et.al. in Science, vol. 316, 29 June 2007

 

2 thoughts on “Peanut butter memories of America

  1. Carrie Gallagher

    excellent ... coming from Midwestern America, peanut butter is a staple in any home's cupboard. School lunches included P,B&J's, "Butter and Butter" i.e. Peanut Butter topped with, yes, Butter!, peanut butter cookies, and the ultimate ... "Fluffer Nutters". Yes, liberal doses of peanut butter, crunchy preferred, topped with marshmellow fluff spread across Wonder bread!! Peanut Butter never entered the main course in our household. And, it wasn't until I reached NYC in my late 20's that I found the wonderful impact of peanut butter blended with spices and served with chicken! This brings me to your column and my love of an asian approach to peanut butter. Such an improvement on "butter and butter". Thank you Bala!! From NC, pecan country, Carrie

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Post author

      Carrie,
      The "Fluffer Nutter" sounds inviting! Like you, my introduction to savory peanut butter dishes came through Asian cuisine, although, the extent to which the peanut butter flavor comes through in savory items in West African cuisine was a revelation to me.

      I enjoy pecans and such fond memories of NC!

      Bala

      Reply

I look forward to reading your thoughts...