George Washington Carver became known as “the Peanut Man” for good reason.
Over the course of more than four decades at Tuskegee Institute (now University), Carver found hundreds of uses for the peanut. He developed a host of food products – milk, butter, malted peanuts, chili sauce, peanut brittle, instant coffee, mock oysters, Worcestershire sauce, cooking oil, mock meats, caramel and cocoa. Carver also created laundry soap, laxatives, hand and face lotion, shampoo, shaving cream, wood stains, gasoline and diesel fuel from peanuts, according to Tuskegee University.
Contrary to popular belief, Carver did not invent peanut butter, according to the National Peanut Board. Instead, what we think of as modern peanut butter can be credited to three inventors: Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Canada, who patented a peanut paste in 1894 made from roasted peanuts; Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (the creator of Kellogg’s cereal), who patented a peanut butter in 1895 made from raw peanuts; and Dr. Ambrose Straub of St. Louis, who patented a peanut-butter making machine in 1903.
The mistaken belief Carver invented peanut butter may be because of his widespread fame as “the Peanut Man.” He cemented that reputation when he testified to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee in 1921 as an expert witness for the peanut industry.
“He demonstrated and described the vast number of items that could be made from peanuts. He so captivated committee members that he received a standing ovation,” wrote the American Chemical Society, which in 2005 designated Carver’s agricultural history a National Historic Chemical Landmark. “More importantly, he convinced the committee that peanuts should be protected, helping to secure a high protective tariff while gaining national fame.”
Carver’s research wasn’t limited to legumes. Carver also found more than 100 uses for sweet potatoes. Those include flour, sugar, molasses, tapioca, vinegar, candy, chocolate, after dinner mints and coffee, as well as hog feed, dyes, paints, writing ink, wood fillers and synthetic cotton and silk.
Hired by Tuskegee founder and President Booker T. Washington in 1896, Carver believed Tuskegee could “unlock the golden dawn of freedom to our people.”
Carver promoted peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans and peas for farmers as a way to enrich the cotton-depleted soils of the South and offer an alternative to growing cotton. His research into the peanut and sweet potato, in particular, was designed to increase demand for those crops and encourage farmers to grow them.
“The average Southern farm has but little more to offer than about one-third of a cotton crop, selling at 2 and 8 cents per pound less than it cost to produce it, together with the proverbial mule, implements more or less primitive, and frequently a vast territory of barren and furrowed hillsides and wasted valleys,” Washington wrote in “The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South.”
That was the seventh of 44 free bulletins he issued from 1898 to 1943, many of which contained recipes: Examples include “How to Cook Cow Peas,” “Three Delicious Meals Every Day for the Farmer” and “How to Grow the Tomato & 115 Ways to Prepare It for the Table.”
Carver’s aim with the bulletins was threefold: information on cultivation for farmers, science for teachers and recipes for cooks.
Carver was born a slave near the end of the Civil War, and his recipes sometimes invoked African ways of cooking.
“His recipes for baking sweet potatoes in ashes, slicing or mashing them to bake with a crust, and serving them with pork and beef were attempts to use African techniques to enliven uninspired menus,” wrote Toni Tipton-Martin in “The Jemima Code,” an award-winning book that documents the contributions black women and men made to America’s cuisine.
Carver also designed a moving school – the Jesup Agricultural Wagon – to visit farms and towns, dispensing agricultural knowledge, including recipes.
“Termed by Booker T. Washington as a ‘Farmers’ College on Wheels,’ the Jesup Wagon would first visit a farmer’s field to demonstrate modern plowing practices or innovations in animal husbandry or plant varieties, fertilizer applications and soil testing,” Tuskegee’s Robert Zabawa wrote for the Encyclopedia of Alabama. “Instruction in raising poultry, cooking, preserving and canning, home maintenance and health then would be offered to the women of the household. After visiting area farms, the wagon would then proceed to a central community location for questions and answers from men and women, young and old.”
Derryn Moten, chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at Alabama State University, said Carver was a “tremendous, tremendous influence” on farming and what Alabamians eat and grow. Peanuts are the most obvious example. Alabama farmers produced 704 million pounds in 2017, ranking third in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“I don’t think there’s an African-American in the 20th century who made a greater impact on farming and farming techniques, for African-American farmers in particular and all farmers in general,” Moten said.
During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.