SCOTT SIMON, host:
Peanut butter sales have dropped since salmonella was traced to a peanut plant earlier this year. The product has long been a part of the American way of life. WEEKEND EDITION food essayist Bonny Wolf looks at the American love for peanut butter.
BONNY WOLF: Peanut butter is more American than apple pie - that came with European settlers. But peanut butter is an American original, a national icon. We love peanut butter. Americans eat 700 million pounds of the stuff every year. That's about $800 million in retail sales. So, this cloud over America's favorite spread is disturbing.
Ironically, peanut butter started as a health food. There are two stories. Either it was created in 1890 by a St. Louis doctor as a protein source for people with bad teeth, or it was created in 1895 by John H. Kellogg as part of the healthful vegetarian diet at his Michigan sanitarium.
But it was the kids who took to peanut butter. Today, according to the Peanut Advisory Board, the average American child eats 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before graduating from high school. And peanut butter is a good thing to have around in tough times. During World War II, meat was scarce and expensive. Protein-packed peanut butter was a cheap alternative.
Now, you're saying, hmm, I always had peanut butter and honey sandwiches or peanut butter and mayonnaise, or applesauce, or marshmallow, or onion or pickle relish. I grew up with peanut butter and banana, and peanut butter and lettuce. And remember ants on a log? Celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter and topped with raisins.
They're on the menu at Peanut Butter and Company in New York, along with all kinds of peanut butter sandwiches, including something called the Elvis — grilled peanut butter, banana, honey and bacon. There is incredible brand loyalty among peanut butter eaters, and vehemence about the critical question: chunky or smooth?
When I was first married, I feared for the relationship. My husband had come from a Peter Pan smooth home, and I was strictly Skippy chunky. We learned about compromise. Chunky or creamy, the National Peanut Board says the product is eaten in nearly 90 percent of American households. Tell me you've never eaten it right from the jar on a spoon.
A few weeks ago, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, blasted the company that let tainted peanuts into the food supply. He asked, what's more sacred than peanut butter? What, indeed.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: Food essayist Bonny Wolf.