The Incas harvested peanuts long before the rise of the Roman Empire; peanut shells have been unearthed in Peruvian archaeological digs over 4500 years old. The natives made a paste from the peanut and mixed it with ground up cocoa beans for a ritual beverage. After Spanish conquistadors and Jesuit priests arrived in the New World, they sent plants and nuts back to Spain. But the European market for peanuts didn't thrive for two reasons: Europe was the wrong plant zone and Father Bernabe Cobo.
Suited to the semi-tropical climate, the peanut did not grow well in chilly Europe. Father Cobo, who had spent many years in Peru, condemned the peanut as an ingredient in witchcraft. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. However, unfazed traders and travelers carried the peanut far and wide, first to Manila then to Asia and the East Indies. Beyond the realm of Father Cobo, the peanut industry sprouted.
Spreading to Africa by the late 1600s, Portuguese traders introduced the peanut to the region where it quickly became established as a cheap and reliable food source. Slave traders bring the peanut across the Atlantic along with thousands of slaves. Both are put to the test on southern plantations. By 1800 the first large-scale peanut crop is grown in South Carolina, mostly for the pressed oil.
Hardtack and peanuts became a staple of marching Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Light weight, nutritious and long-lasting, the peanut's reputation is growing.
Close to the turn of the 20th century, several entrepreneurs start selling a peanut-based paste, and in 1895 the Kellogg brothers apply for a patent for a substance that is "...termed nut butter." The new food spreads and is introduced to a larger American public during the 1904 Saint Louis World's Fair.
Around this time, Dr. George Washington Carver, AKA the Peanut Wizard, is deeply involved in experimenting with peanuts. He convinces many southern farmers to either switch from cotton to peanuts or to grow a second type of crop to cotton as boll weevils advanced onto southern cotton fields from Mexico. Carver develops over 300 beneficial uses from the little goobers, from food to cosmetics to industrial applications. Carver raised the stature of the "lowly peanut" to a super food.
Carver continued his work until his death in 1943. By then, peanut butter consumption was on the rise. During World War Two, American GIs were issued separate rations of peanut butter and jelly. Sometimes necessity is the Mother of invention. The GIs were credited with putting the two c-rations together, and the PB&J was born.
In the 1950s a new war broke out: the Peanut Butter War. Big companies started to promote their brands with Skippy and Jif the industry heavyweights.
Today, the National Peanut Board estimates that the average American kid will consume over 1,500 PB&J sandwiches before they finish high school, and that roughly 90% of American households eat peanut butter. But Americans are not alone in their love of peanut butter. Canadians, Germans, English, Dutch and Saudis are also big consumers of peanut butter or peanut products.
To honor the peanut, November has been dedicated as National Peanut Butter Lover's Month, while March is National Peanut Month. There are also yearly celebratory days for National Peanut Butter Day (January 24), National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day (April 2), National I love Reese's Day (May 18) and National Peanut Butter Cookie Day (September 13). About the only people that don't celebrate these days are those that suffer from Archibutyrophia - the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of their mouth.