How World War I Turned Peanut Butter Into an American Staple

Peanut soup, peanut loaf, and other recipes helped Americans contribute foods to the war effort.

Peanut butter on bread slice shot on rustic wooden table
Photo: fcafotodigital/Getty Images

Peanut butter is ubiquitous in American cuisines. It's a staple in candy bars, a stalwart pantry occupant, and a sandwich filler that made up a fair share of childhood lunches. Sure, there are other countries that utilize the protein-rich spread, but peanut butter is deeply woven into the fabric of American culture.

The peanut most likely originated in Brazil or Peru, but it didn't arrive in North America until much later. Enslaved Africans brought peanuts to North America during the 1700s, but they weren't cultivated in the United States until more than a century later.

Peanut butter, on the other hand, is actually a Canadian invention, and was first patented in 1884. John Kellogg patented peanut butter in the U.S. 11 years later.

In 1903, Ambrose Straub invented a peanut butter-making machine and introduced it at the St. Louis World's Fair the following year. Meanwhile, the Southern economy shifted away from cotton and towards peanuts — much to the thanks of Dr. George Washington Carver's research at the Tuskegee Institute — which readily took to the region and industrialism. As a result, peanuts, and peanut butter, became easier to access.

Peanut Butter's Part in the War Effort

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, they did not implement rations — in fact, the states were the only participating country that did not take this step. Instead, Americans turned to volunteer efforts, such as making their own substitutions, planting victory gardens, and partaking in meatless Mondays to support the four million men and women involved in all aspects of the armed forces.

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National World War I Museum and Memorial

The United States Food Administration, led by Herbert Hoover, issued publications encouraging Americans to change how they cooked — and as a source of both protein and fat, peanut butter became a popular ingredient.

"In that brief time frame that the U.S. was involved in the war, there are a lot of those recipes that are pushed out there, and you certainly see peanut butter being a part of them," says Lora Vogt, curator of education and interpretation at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. "It was more industrially available, and people knew enough that they knew it was a good nutrition source and that it could allow you to have both a meat and a fat substitute."

Peanuts and peanut butter happened to be at the right place at the right time. The revitalization of the South's agricultural economy, combined with peanuts' flexibility and convenience, made peanuts a natural choice for a nutritionally substantial food alternative.

More than 100 years removed from that war, peanut butter hasn't lost its place in the popularity poll. It's prized for its flavor and for its versatility.

"It's a food that's readily available, it's easy to purchase, it's something that many individuals enjoy, and it's such a flexible food," Vogt says. "When you look at these different recipes, you can see how it gets used in a variety of different ways. It's a little bit of a Swiss Army Knife of ingredients."

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World War I Museum and Memorial

Peanut Butter Soup Recipe

Excerpted from Win the War in the Kitchen cookbook

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 cup boiling water (in which has been cooked ½ cup outer stalk celery)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon potato starch
  • 1 teaspoon oleomargarine

Directions:

  • Blend the peanut butter and 1 cup milk. Heat remainder of milk in double boiler. Add starch and fat creamed together in boiling water. Cook until clear. Add this to the hot milk. Add peanut butter and seasoning. Mill with a Dover eggbeater. Strain and serve hot.

Peanut Loaf

Excerpted from Win the War in the Kitchen cookbook

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup soft bread crumbs (toasted)
  • ¾ cup peanut butter
  • ½ cup cooked rice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Spk. Pepper
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Directions:

  • Combine. Bake in a loaf 30 minutes. Unmold and serve with tomato sauce or ketchup.

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