Eating "grinded goober peas" has been a national obsession since 1890, when a St. Louis physician invented peanut butter for his geriatric patients. wToday, four out of five American homes have a jar of peanut butter on the shelf (or in the refrigerator); we consume more than 300,000 tons of the stuff annually.

Americans spread it smooth, chunky and super crunchy on bread, crackers, apples, bananas, celery and ham. They mix it with marshmallow fluff, crushed pineapple, bacon, bean sprouts, devilled ham, raisins and onions. They stir it into soups, smear it on meats, take it on breads and take it straight off the spoon.

The peanut gallery crowd prefer it with jelly -- "just jelly, Mom -- taking care to eat it with the jelly side on top, to keep the peanut butter off the roof of the mouth.

The late Sen. Hubert Humphrey request it with baloney, chedder cheese, lettuce and mayonniase on toasted bread with ketchup on the side. Sen. Barry Goldwater once used it as shaving cream on a dare: "darn good shaving cream" he reported.

And then there's my son. Bryce is three years old, and at that tender age, he has become one of the Washington area's top authorities on peanut butter.

A piece of rare, tender steak lying succently on a plate looks wrong to him.

So does pork lamb, chicken and ham. Wat looks right? Peanut butter.

He loves the stuff.

Nutritionally, it's a good choice. Peanut butter is a paragon of protein, supplying 40 percent of a child's daily needs with only four tablespoons. Authorities on health food point out, however, that it is an incomplete protein. This means that in order to extract the full benefits of the protein, it must be combined with other nuts and seeds, whole grains or milk products at each meal.

With the kind of inventiveness only mothered by necessity, I've learned to stir this paragon into nearly every meal my son sits down to. Bryce eats a mother-invented peanut butter cake, candy and cookies. He also dips his beloved vegetables into a garlic-laden peanut butter dish, and twists, rolls and shapes play-dough based on the goobers.

My son, you might say, is stuck on peanut butter. So when we were asked to conduct a taste test and the jars of peanut butter came rolling in, his ecstacy level rose above measurable heights. "Peanut butter! Peanut butter! ePeanut butter!"

Eight peanut butters lined our shelf: six from various health food stores and two from our local market. With this battery of samples, I was ready to begin.

I invited a neighborhood group of completely impartial, socially scientific peanut butter users, aged 3 through 12, and set out anonymous plates full of peanut buttered crackers.

"That one looks icky, Mrs. Churchman." Sherry Nyman, 9, informed me. "And why does this one have little black spots?"

Bryce seated himself in front of the spotted plate and consumed three crackers before I could stop him.He expressed no interest in the other kinds of peanut butter -- they looked wrong.

The other social scientists generally enjoyed all the brands presented with the exception of the locally made Apocalyptic Peanut Butter. This batch was stale.

The hands-down winner was Laurelbrook -- the spotted one -- made with sun-dried Valencia peanuts roasted and ground with the skins on. This and the first runner-up, Tree of Life (made with peanuts and sea salt), are available at Kennedy's Natural Foods, 1051 Broad Street, Falls Church, and other locations.

The city-wide health food store bestseller -- Arrowhead Mills Deaf Smith brand -- received mixed reviews from our discriminating tasters. And Jif brand, which I stuck in as a token additive, had ratings that were sharply divided along age lines. Those over eight though it too sweet; those under eight though it just right.

Skippy Old Fashioned brand -- made with peanuts and salt, no sugar -- made passable marks, and the remainder -- Elam's and Collegedale -- were deemed "to gooey".

The following recipes will accept any peanut butter, regardless of taste, additives or degree of gooiness. The first two are from my mother and mother-in-law, respectively, which just goes to show you that Bryce comes by his obsession honestly. VIRGINA PEANUT SOUP

My mother got this recipe from the Hotel Roanoke, famous for serving colonial Virginia foods. Peanuts have been a Virginia product since slaves brough the "nguba" or goober from Africa and planted them outside their quarters. 1/2 pound butter 1 small onion, diced 2 ribs celery, diced 3 tablespoons flour 2 quarts chicken broth 1 pint peanut butter 1/3 teaspoon celery salt 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/2 cup ground peanuts

Melt butter, add onion and celery. Saut'e for 5 mintues, but do not brown.

Add flour and blend. Stir in hot chicken broth, cook 30 minutes. Remove from the stove, strain. Add peanute butter, celery salt, salt and lemon juice. Sprinkle ground peanuts on soup just before serving. PEANUT BUTTER-Glazed -- HAM

My husband cherishes aromatic memories of peanut-butter-smeared ham emerging from his mother's oven. I tried it as a plot to get Bryce to eat ham. He ate the glaze instead. 1/4 cup mustard 1 cup peanut butter 4 tablespoons brown sugar

Mix and spread over large ham. Bake as usual. PEANUT BUTTER CAKE 1 cup peanut butter 1/2 cup shortening 1 cup granulated sugar 1/2 cup packed brown sugar 1 tablespoon vanilla 4 eggs 1 ripe banana 2 cups unbleached flour 1/2 cup milk powder 1/3 cup buttermilk 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon baking powder

Cream peanut butter and shortening; add sugars and vanilla. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add banana. Mix flour, milk powder, baking soda and baking powder together; alternate adding flour mixture and buttermilk to batter. Beat until well blended.Pour batter into two greased and floured 9 inch pans. Bake at 350 oven from 35 to 40 minutes or until cake tests done. 9Cool and ice with grape or strawberry jam. BRYCE KRISPIES 1 cup peanut butter 1 package (6 ounces) butterscotch bits 1/4 cup milk 3 cups toasted rice ceral

In double boiler, melt peanut butter with butterscotch and milk. Stir in rice cereal. Spread in square baking pan, cool and cut in squares. EATABLE PLAY-DOUGH 1 cup peanut butter 1/2 cup milk powder 1/2 cup wheat germ 1/4 cup honey

Stir together. If sticky, add more milk powder. Use just as you would for playdough to create faces, pots, balls and dolls. Decorate with raisins, coconut, vegetable sticks, bean sprouts and red hot candies. INDONESIAN VEGETABLE PLATTER (2 servings) salad: 1/2 cup shredded raw cabbage 1/2 cup sliced raw carrots 1/2 cup cooked green beans 1 tomatoe, sliced Lettuce leaves 1 cucumber, sliced 2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced

Arrange vegetables on a platter. (Indonesion cooks made each separate vegetable look like a flower.) Garnish with sliced eggs. Dressing: 6 tablespoons peanut butter 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 teaspoon ground or crushed red pepper 1 bay leaf 1 slice lemon Salt to taste 1 cup water 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 cup milk

Saut'e the peanut butter, garlic and seasonings. Add water, sugar and milk gradually. Cook over low flame, stirring continuously, until thick. Serve separately. -- From "I Love Peanut Butter Cookbook" by William Kauffman HOMEMADE PEANUT BUTTER

The refrigerator is the safest place to store homemade, preservative-free peanut butter -- a taste treat quickly made in your blender, food processor, or $25 peanut butter maker. 3 cups roasted peanuts 3 tablespoons peanut oil

Place in blender and mix until smooth. Add salt to taste.For chunky style, stir in a few chopped peanuts by hand. Other additions: honey, sesame seeds, curry powder, orange bits or jelly.

The peanut butter principle -- of grinding up nuts into butter -- applies to all nuts and health food stores carry delicious examples. Ranging from the exhorbitant almond butter -- over $5 per pound -- to comparatively inexpensive cashew butter -- $2 per pound -- the nut butters are to peanut butter what pate is to meatloaf.

Home Rule Natural Foods (1825 Columbia Road, N.W.) carries one of the widest selections, including cashew, almond, sunflower, sesame, and maple butters as well as a mixture of peanut, date and cashew butters.

"The other nut butters are used primarily in baked goods." says Bob Gardner of planter's. "There's a filbert butter, for example, that is used in some high quality European candy. And then almond butter can be used interchangeably with almond paste in recipes for baked goods like the German Stollen."

Sesame butter is another recipe substitute. It is the unhulled version of tahini, a Mid-east sesame concoction used in many recipes.

All the spreads can be used in place of peanut butter. A good trick is to combine the butters, which gives you a complete protein.

Here are some idea sparkers to get you started discovering the other butters: HUMMUS

This is a dip for vegetable sticks and pita bread, particularly popular in Cyprus, where Jim Edwards was stationed as a navy petty officer. His version involved mixing mashed chickpeas, garlic and olive oil with enough lemon juice "until it looks like lemonade," and then stirring in sesame butter until "it tastes like it did on Cypress." After some experimenting, we arrived at the following proportions: 1 cup chickpeas 1/3 cup sesame butter (tahini) 1/2 cup lemon juice 1 garlic clove, crushed 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon olive oil

Place all ingredients in blender and mix until smooth. ALMOND BUTTER SPREAD 1/2 cup almond butter 1/2 cup chopped dates 1 tablespoons grated orange peel

Mix and spread on thin slices of black bread. BUTTER-BUTTER-BUTTER Spread 4 tablespoons cashew butter 4 tablespoons sunflower butter 4 tablespoons apple butter

Mix and spread on split English muffins. BANANA BUTTER SNACK 2 large bananas 8 tablespoons cashew butter 4 tablespoons milk 1/4 cup coconut, shredded

Stir cashew butter with milk. Put bananas on stick and roll in butter mixture until evenly spread. Roll in coconut and serve.