June 30, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: This ran as William F. Buckley Jr.'s March 26, 1981, "On the Right" column in National Review.
For many years I have labored under the burden of an unrequited passion. What have I done for it, in return for all it has done for me? Nothing. But I have wondered what I could use as what the journalists call a "peg."
I have found one. This may strike some of the literal-minded as attenuated, but it goes as follows: This is the centennial year of the Tuskegee Institute, which was founded on the Fourth of July, 1881, by Booker T. Washington. Tuskegee continues to be a remarkable institution, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is the head of a committee of illustrious men and women who are devoting themselves to raising $20 million to encourage it in its noble work.
What noble work? We have arrived at step two. It was, among other things, the principal academic home of George Washington Carver, and it was G. W. Carver who to all intents and purposes invented the peanut. What he did, more specifically, was document that the cultivation of the peanut despoiled the land far less than the cultivation of cotton, and then he set out to merchandise the peanut in order that there might be a market for it.
He discovered an estimated three hundred uses for it, many of them entirely removed from the peanut's food value. But it is this, of course, that is the wonder of the peanut. The Encyclopedia Britannica informs us that "pound for pound peanuts have more protein, minerals, and vitamins than beef liver, more fat than heavy cream, and more food energy (calories) than sugar." And George Washington Carver discovered peanut butter.
I have never composed poetry, but if I did, my very first couplet would be:
When I was first married and made plain to my wife that I expected peanut butter for breakfast every day of my life, including Ash Wednesday, she thought me quite mad (for the wrong reasons). She has not come round, really, and this is a source of great sadness to me because one wants to share one's pleasures.
I was hardened very young to the skeptics. When I was twelve I was packed off to a British boarding school by my father, who dispatched every fortnight a survival package comprising a case of grapefruit and a large jar of peanut butter. I offered to share my tuck with the other boys at my table. They grabbed instinctively for the grapefruit but one after another actually spit out the peanut butter, which they had never before seen and which only that very year (1938) had become available for sale in London. No wonder they needed American help to win the war.
You can find it now in specialty shops in Europe, but I have yet to see it in anyone's home. And it is outrageously difficult to get even in the typical American hotel. My profession requires me to spend forty or fifty nights on the road every year, and when it comes time to order breakfast over the telephone I summon my resolution it helps to think about peanut butter when you need moral strength and add, after the orange juice, coffee, skim milk, and whole-wheat toast, "Do you have any peanut butter?"
Sometimes the room service operator will actually break out laughing when the request is put in, at which point my voice becomes stern and unsmiling. Often the operator will say, "Just a minute," and then she will turn, I suppose to the chef, but I can hear right through the hand she has put over the receiver "Hey Jack. We got any peanut butter? Room 322 wants some peanut butter!" This furtive philistinism is then regularly followed by giggles all around. One lady recently asked, "How old is your little boy and does he want a peanut butter sandwich? To which I replied, "My little boy is twenty-eight and is never without peanut butter, because he phones ahead before he confirms hotel reservations."
I introduced Auberon Waugh to cashew butter ten years ago when he first visited America, and although I think it inferior to peanut butter Auberon was quite simply overwhelmed. You can't find it in Great Britain so I sent him a case from the Farmer's Market. It quite changed his writing style: for about ten months he was at peace with the world. I think that was the time he said something pleasant about Harold Wilson. In the eleventh month, it was easy to tell that he had run out. It quite changes your disposition and your view of the world if you cannot have peanut butter every day.
So here is yet another reason for contributing money to the Tuskegee Institute. For all we know, but for it we'd never have tasted peanut butter. There'd be no Planter's, no Jif, no Peter Pan that terrible thought reminds us of our indebtedness to George Washington Carver.