THE POLITICAL position of the peanut is hard to pin down. At the highest level it would seem to be Democratic, having been brought into the White House by Jimmy Carter. Yet Franklin Delano Roosevelt, apparently hostile, imposed a limit on the planting of peanuts. Roosevelt's action was formal, taken in accord with the precepts of the Agricultural Adjustment Act. But Richard Nixon beat Carter to the punch, even if his use of the peanut was more of an improvisation.
After Nixon had ordered that several old Navy buildings near the Washington Monument be torn down; the rodents they had been harboring, no doubt as an act of reprisal, moved into the White House. It was the consensus of opinion that the White House was no place for mice or rats, so traps were placed at all strategic points -- baited with peanuts.
Certain fortuitous contacts of my own at the grass roots level, admittedly incomplete as a sampling, make me wonder whether peanuts among the common people may not be on the Democrats' side of the fence. My brother Kenneth, who was content to leave gastronomy to me, lived for a year almost exclusively on peanuts and chocolate bars, losing all his teeth. He was a Republican. A fellow office worker in New York thrived on lunches which consisted, day in, day out, of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. He was a Democrat.
When I asked him why he had chosen this particular diet, he responded, unanswerably, "I don't like to eat."
If this attitude towards food is widespread in the United States, it would explain why American food is rated so low in certain gastronomically sophisticated countries which have allowed the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to remain a purely American creation, which no other nation has ever tried to wrest from us. Worse representatives of our native diet might be found without leaving this particuar food, for instance in peanut ice cream.
I am not thinking of ice creams which are simply peanut flavored or include bits of the chopped nut, which sell well in the South but are shunned in New York, but of a concoction which nevertheless was spawned in New York, through its most august publication, The New York Times. In 1943, provoked, it is true, by wartime campaigns for the economizing of certain foods, the Times published a recipe for vanilla ice cream in which the customary cream as replaced by peanut butter. To emphasize the patriotic intention that had inspired this confection (since, I think, deceased, but it is risky to assert anything in the field of ice cream), the Times offered its creation to the world on the Fourth of July.
The peanut might well be hailed as representing 100 percent Americanism on the basis of its consumption. All over the world people nibble peanuts, salted, roasted, or as is, but this adds up to a very modest total. Everywhere except in the United States, peanuts are consumed chiefly in the form of salad or cooking oils. As a solid the peanut is very nearly an American exclusivity. Invented in St. Louis in 1890, peanut butter uses up half of the American crop. Only 10 percent goes into oil, somewhat over 30 percent is exported, and the rest supplies peanuts for direct human consumption, or to feed to livestock, or to be used as fertilizer and marginally in industry. Eighty pecent of American households keep peanut butter in the house; we eat approximately 250,000 tons of it per year.
From some other points of view, the credentials of the peanut as simon-pure American (meaning the United States) are a trifle shaky. An attempt has been made to mesh it into our history by bringing forward the story of Miles Standish, who, on the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth discovered an Indian cache containing a life-saving treasure of Indian corn and "groundnuts." The theory that what the Pilgrims called groundnuts were peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) is incorrect; peanuts do not grow this far north. What they found were Indian potatoes (Apios tuberosa) , and they probably paraphrased the name from one or the other of two earthnuts of their native England.
A second possible justification for hailing the peanut as 100 percent American has been sought by identifying it with the American Indian in the southeastern United States.
It has been asserted that the first Europeans to reach Virginia found the Indians there already in possession of the peanut, which they roasted and salted (with salt obtained from sea water) just as we do today. A corollary to this account is the suggestion that the Powhatan Indians had by then already invented Smithfield ham, since they employed the two essential processes for the manufacture of this famous food, feeding the pigs on peanuts and smoking the meat over hickory wood fires.
Indians may have been the first to devise this technique after the Europeans arrived, but it is doubly dubious that they were able to do so before. Not only is it far from certain that the peanut had worked its way this far north by the beginning of the 17th century (the earliest reference to it in this part of the world known to me was made by Thomas Jefferson in 1792), but the Indians had no pigs until the white man introduced them. An attempt has been made to get around this difficulty by suggesting that pigs had beaten Europeans to Virginia, coming from the 13 original porkers which Hernando de Sota landed in Florida in 1542. But there was virtually no contact with Spanish Florida and the country to its north, though there was toward the west. So far as I know, there were no pigs in Virginia when the first settlers arrived.
However, the all-American status of the peanut can be upheld if we put aside our tendency to consider "America" as synonymous with the United States alone, and, out of respect for the Organization of American States or through simply geographical broad-mindedness, accept its wider meaning, that which covers all the Americas. The peanut is, in fact, a native of tropical South America, where it seems to have been first cultivated by the Incas.
Although plants closely related to the peanut grow wild in Brazil, it is thought that the peanut, possibly already in cultivated form, was obtained by the comparatively primitive Brazilian Indians from their more civilized neighbors of the Andes, either the Incas or the Chimu. The presence of the peanut in Brazil supplies an alternative explanation for the route by which it reached the southeastern United States, assuming that it did not get there directly through Indians before the white man arrived there. It does not, in fact, seem to have been observed by the arriving Europeans further north than Mexico, where Cortez saw it, and Haiti, where Columbus saw it.
According to the alternative theory, slave traders carried the peanut to the West Coast of Africa and planted it there to provide cheap and nourishing food for their slaves; and the slaves brought the peanut back to America.
If this theory is correct, American dealers in peanuts are indebted twice to the American black for the existence of their business, but they are in any case indebted to him once. Little attention was paid to peanuts in the United States until the closing years of the 19th century, when the boll weevil was wreaking havoc in the cotton plantations. To compenste for the damage Dr. George Washington Carver, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, set himself the task of finding a substitute crop.
He considered cowpeas and soybeans, but finally plumped for peanuts. He concentrated at first on their industrial uses, which are many -- they go into salves and cosmetics, into stains, dyes, and paint (in which they serve as a quick-drying agent), into inks and bleaches, and they can be used as lubricants. Only then did Dr. Carver turn to the peanut's role as a food, devising complete menus based on it, from soup to dessert. Largely because of his efforts, peanut production in the United States was multiplied by 12; the country today is a major producer, consumer and explorer of peanuts. The leading state for peanut production is President Carter's home state, where more than 500,000 acres are devoted to raising nuts for the market, and more than another 150,000 to growing them to fatten hogs, which are turned into the fields when the nuts ripen to do their own harvesting, eating the foliage and grubbing up the nuts.
"Peanuts," wrote James Trager, "have long been associated with circuses and sporting events," and he might have added with altitude in theaters, where the topmost balcony is sometimes called the peanut gallery. "The Foxfire Book," which deals with the less modernized aspects of Georgian Appalachian life, notes succinctly, in a section devoted to folk medicine: "Hiccups: Take a teaspoon of peanut butter."