During this anniversary of the assassination, a condemnatory critique has come to the fore in our cultural conversations. This well-documented argument concludes that the image of Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. presented today is a sanitized version of the real life and times of the reverend, especially his last years, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. The legislation was present but the racism, the poverty, and the disparities in opportunity were still deeply embedded in the United States. He was fighting as hard as ever, with every growing headwind against his movement and his goals.
“They pay us peanuts,” many Americans on poverty wages say. The cliché is old, even dated now. Few realize that this statement is rooted in American slavery. Peanuts are intimately bound to the black slaves of the United States, including the commercial success of tan, highly nutritious kernels.
Peanuts reached the United States by a circuitous route. The peanut we know today is a hybrid of two plants that originated in South America, at least 3500 years ago. The record is scant, but kernels have been found with mummies on South American continent.
The European explorers discovered peanuts in the 1500’s and brought them back to Europe. From Europe, the peanut was distributed to Africa and to Asia. The peanut became a staple crop in parts of Africa.
In the 1700’s, the peanut makes its debut in North America as another commodity accompanying the slave trade. As slaves were loaded on ships, so were peanuts. North American farmers did not know how to grow or tend the peanut crops though, although they were interested in investing in them. They relied on their African slaves, who were already familiar with the peanut, to manage the crops. At this time, the peanut crops were considered appropriate for feeding livestock and slaves. Peanuts were slave food.
Peanuts rose in stature with the Civil War for military reasons. As the Union soldiers make their way through the South, they encountered peanuts as a snack and as a staple, appreciating the taste and the health benefits. Enjoying their new nut, the soldiers brought peanuts back to the northern states, incorporating them in their diet. Decades later, P.T. Barnum adds roasted peanuts to his circus show to boost his profit margin.
Peanut butter emerged more than once during the 1800’s. but gained a stronger hold in the American diet late in the century. A St. Louis doctor concocted a peanut spread recipe for his elderly patients who no longer had enough teeth to chew meat. He recognized that the nut was a good source of protein, which could be gummed.
Peanut butter produced by the large conglomerates today is a sweeten gooey concoction of what the slaves ate and the good doctor invented. Peanut butter was pureed roasted peanuts with nothing added. Today, we pay extra for the pure product while the adulterated one is less expensive.
One commentator called the presentation of Dr. King in today’s history books and holidays “cotton candy.” I have used the same term for years to describe many peanut butters on the grocery shelves, which is the origin of this essay. Food and images of a civil rights leader and minister are not the same phenomena and should not be equated with the same gravity. Nonetheless, the same sanitizing of the slave origins and the following historical chapters of purging the repercussions of that slavery do run in parallel.
Many of the best tasting dishes today began in poverty. The peanut, however, does not come from poverty alone, but from American slavery as well. Enjoy your peanuts; these nuts carry much history with them.
PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES (gluten free)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
½ cup sifted coconut flour
¼ cup rice flour
1 cup natural peanut butter
1½ cups sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup peanuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
¼ cup peanut oil
½ teaspoon vanilla
1. Mix together peanut butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, peanut oil and salt. Stir in peanuts and coconut and rice flours.
2. Drop by the spoonful 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 14 minutes.
3. Cool slightly and remove from cookie sheet to racks.