How WWI History Changed My Views about Peanut Butter

I hate peanut butter. As a kid, I wouldn’t touch a PB‘n’J, PB & banana, or PB & anything sandwich. The legume spread had no redeeming traits, I thought, until historical research in American World War I cookbooks broadened my mind.

Food is central to the history of American involvement in World War I. The war disrupted Europeans’ ability to import, produce, and distribute food. Well before the United States entered the war in 1917, Americans were providing humanitarian assistance, including food aid, to European civilians, who would have gone hungry without assistance. Once the country took up arms in the conflict, food became even more important to the war effort. In response to patriotic appeals from President Woodrow Wilson and other leaders, some citizens on the home front voluntarily reduced the amount of wheat, beef, pork, sugar, and other staples that they ate in order to send those foods to troops and allied civilians in Europe. While many people today (try to) limit their consumption of those foods, contemporary nutrition science considered wheat and meat to be particularly nutritious. In addition, white middle-class Americans defined themselves, in part, through eating the foods approved by the latest scientific research. Giving them up, then, was a real sacrifice. Moreover, people needed ideas for what to eat instead. Cookbooks with titles like Foods That Will Win the War offered help.

Recently, AHA members Julia Irwin, Helen Veit, and I teamed up in an innovative collaboration with the publication American Food Roots and the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial to explore this history through a series of short videos, filmed at the Hill Center in Washington, DC. Irwin, associate professor at the University of South Florida and author of Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening, and Veit, assistant professor at Michigan State University and author of Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century, discuss food in relation to the war. Putting my former cooking career to use, I demo recipes from two wartime cookbooks. The videos can be found on American Food Roots and on the museum’s online exhibit, War Fare: A Culinary Exploration of World War I. (As of the time of this post, the first two have been released. Three more are yet to come.)

For an introduction to the series, check out this video:

And learn about the history of peanut butter and cream cheese in relation to the war here:

These videos and other related materials will also be featured at Food Will Win the War: A K-12 Educators’ Workshop on Teaching World War I at the AHA annual meeting.

What sort of dishes do the WWI cookbooks include? There are recipes for braised tongue and soybean croquettes, both of which we make and discuss, and for stewed possum, which we do not. There are dishes such as Egyptian salad and Mandalay salad that reflect an interest in cooking foods understood as exotic by many white Americans at the time and sections advising readers on how to make good use of stale bread, cake, and leftover cereal. And then there are peanut butter recipes.

Peanut butter, I learned, was not widely consumed by Americans before this era. Wartime cooking reformers promoted it and other legumes—served in loaves, souffles, croquettes, and the surprisingly refreshing peanut butter soup we sample—as protein-rich alternatives for meat, which was needed in Europe. Reflecting enduring beliefs in the era that eating meat was necessary for good health, one cookbook noted that while these foods were high in protein, they should be substituted for meat only “occasionally.” Nonetheless, Americans would, of course, come to embrace peanut butter as a school lunchbox staple.

This historical perspective helps me appreciate peanut butter much more than I had. Still doesn’t mean I like it, though.

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