Between the standard winter blahs and the pandemic, we at DFC HQ have been leaning heavily on the comfort food. Among them is a childhood favourite that is actually a secret nutritional superstar: peanut butter! Not only is the spread high in protein, it also boasts a good dollop of dietary fibre, vitamin E, and magnesium. (Sticking with “natural” PB — without added sugars — is the key to healthy eating here!)
Also, delving into its history is a fascinating trip through technology and American culture, as Smithsonian magazine shows.
The patent for “food compound” prepared from boiled peanuts or almonds was filed in 1895 by John Harvey Kellogg, a doctor who wanted to give healthy, easily digested preparations to patients at his sanitarium, and whose Seventh-Day-Adventist inflected approach to food science also gave us another breakfast essential, cornflakes. This proto-butter was simple in execution, but complicated in the care required to store it. It took a while to get to today’s common pantry staple.
“Manufacturers sold tubs of peanut butter to local grocers, and advised them to stir frequently with a wooden paddle, according to Andrew Smith, a food historian. Without regular effort, the oil would separate out and spoil. Then, in 1921, a Californian named Joseph Rosefield filed a patent for applying a chemical process called partial hydrogenation to peanut butter, a method by which the main naturally occurring oil in peanut butter, which is liquid at room temperature, is converted into an oil that’s solid or semisolid at room temperature and thus remains blended; the practice had been used to make substitutes for butter and lard, like Crisco, but Rosefield was the first to apply it to peanut butter. This more stable spread could be shipped across the country, stocked in warehouses and left on shelves, clearing the way for the national brands we all know today.”
Commenters on the Smithsonian article have already called out the piece’s American bias, by chiming in that Montreal’s own Marcellus Gilmore Edson patented a roasted peanut paste in 1884. Not only was this significantly earlier than Kellogg, but I also bet Edson’s results were far tastier — as well as being more in line with the peanut butter we know and love.
Whoever claims this stroke of genius, the peanut butter we’ve ended up with has definitely changed North American food habits over the past century. It fills the niche of an easy, cheap, and tasty protein that can be used in sweet and savoury alike. We’ve even adapted the production process to create a whole range of nut and seed kinds of butter, both for taste and allergen-safety! I’m glad this simple invention isn’t leaving our culture — or the surface of my toast — anytime soon.
Palm oil — derived from the seeds of the West African oil palm — is a high-smoke point, highly saturated fat of remarkable versatility. Not only can it be eaten, in things like baked goods, spreads, and candies, it can also be found in cosmetics, personal cleansers, and industrial lubricants; byproducts like the seed shells can even be used in concrete. The palm oil industry is so lucrative in habitats like Malaysia and Indonesia that it’s caused devastating deforestation in pursuit of monoculture; making your muffin or car or shampoo a direct contributor to the decline of the wild orangutan.
Palm oil’s evil extends beyond damage to the environment though. AP has produced an exposé on the industry’s reliance on child labour, contrasting two childhood experiences — that of a Girl Scout who sells cookies in Tennesee, and that of the estimated 1.5 million children who work in the Indonesian agricultural sector producing the palm oil for those cookies.
“Many kids are introduced to palm oil soon after they’re born – it’s a primary fat in infant formula. And as they grow, it’s present in many of their favorite foods: It’s in their Pop-Tarts and Cap’n Crunch cereal, Oreo cookies, KitKat candy bars, Magnum ice cream, doughnuts and even bubble gum.
‘Let them enjoy it,’ said Abang, a skinny 14-year-old who dropped out of the fifth grade to help his father on an Indonesian plantation and has never tasted ice cream. He has accepted his own fate, but still dreams of a better future for his little brother.
‘Let me work, just me, helping my father,’ Abang said. ‘I want my brother to go back to school. … I don’t want him in the same difficult situation like me.’”
As the world’s most popular vegetable oil, palm oil is present in an estimated 50% of packaged products. Manufacturers obscure its presence in ingredient lists by using up to 200 different names for it. Even ethically sourced palm oil can “greenwashed,” as the investigation of the above-mentioned Girl Scout uncovered.
So, it’s tricky to manage our dependence on palm oil. It’s also easy to not see the people (or endangered animals) whose pain goes into these products, being so far away from their origin. Awareness that it’s everywhere is maybe the first action towards reducing consumer dependence; finding alternatives is second. Third is reframing the market entirely — here’s hoping we’ll make it in time.
Let’s start 2021 off with a bang, with news that, unfortunately, also started with a bang, way back in 79 CE. That was the year of the notorious Mt. Vesuvius eruption, that buried the Roman town of Pompeii in layers of hot ash and pumice, erasing it from the Italian landscape and preserving the artifacts of its last day for nearly 2000 years. Archaeologists have long studied this slice of historical life (as well as that of the neighbouring buried settlement, Herculaneum), leaving the excavated ruins open for tourists to visit.
But a tonne of Pompeii is still buried and off-limits to all but researchers. Recently, a team digging in the Regio V section of the site turned up a fabulous find: a thermopolium, or essentially, an ancient Roman lunch counter. Pompeii is dotted with the remains of these establishments — L-shaped counters with amphorae, once full of hot local fare ready for dishing out to hungry passersby, sunken into them. But the Regio V shop is the first to be uncovered whole, with even its gorgeous counter frescoes — advertising the fresh ingredients! — intact.
“Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.
The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.
‘This is an extraordinary find. It’s the first time we are excavating an entire [thermopolium],’ said Massimo Ossana, director of the Pompeii archaeological park.
Archaeologists also found a decorated bronze drinking bowl known as a patera, ceramic jars used for cooking stews and soups, wine flasks and amphora.”
The researchers are eager to learn more about the Roman diet from traces left at this thermopolium. (Already, they’ve uncovered evidence that pork, fish, beef, and snails were on the menu.) I find my fascination tempered by a sense of sadness: a lunch counter is exactly the kind of regular-Joe detail that makes me think of the people who lived next to it, maybe even popped by for a bite every day — until one day they didn’t. I hope science uncovers much more about ancient Roman city life, down to how they did their street food. Not only does it fill in some gaps in history, but it’s also a way of keeping the last happy, delicious moments of Pompeii’s citizens alive.