Object lesson

9th March 2001 at 00:00
They must be nuts. They look like nuts, taste like nuts and everybody calls them nuts. But they're not nuts. Peanuts are pulses, members of the same family as beans, peas and lentils. Also known as groundnuts - to distinguish them from the kind that grow on trees - they are the fruit of a small bushy plant which sends pod-bearing shoots under the soil, where the peanut ripens like a truffle.

Peanut-shaped pottery from 3,000 years ago shows it originated in South America. Early explorers took the plant to Africa and slaves grew it in the Southern American states, hence its American nickname "goober", from nguba, the Congalese word for peanut.

The peanut was food for the poor - hence the word's worthless connotations - until George Washington Carver, the mainly self-educated son of a slave, guaranteed its place in the snack food hall of fame. At the turn of the century, he persuaded farmers that the nitrogen-rich peanut could revive exhausted soil, thereby saving cotton growers from ruin.

Carver, by now a respected botanist, also discovered 300 uses for the hitherto unheard-of crop, in dye, plastics, soap and cosmetics. Peanut oil is the main derivative in India and China, which produce two-thirds of the world harvest. Half the US crop is crushed into peanut butter, first invented in the 1890s as a health food for the elderly. About 2 per cent of the world's crop is grown in Georgia, celebrated on bumper stickers as the Peanut State, and home to the world's most famous peanut farmer, former president Jimmy Carter.

In a nutshell, peanuts are more calorific than sugar, fattier than cream, and packed with proteins, vitamins and minerals. But even a trace of the peanut's complex protein structure can trigger a violent, occasionally fatal, reaction in some people. One in 200 of us suffers this allergy, an unexplained intolerance for which no vaccine has yet been found.

The crunchy kidney shaped snack may be synonymous with the cartoon strip, but its creator, Charles Schulz, originally called it Li'l Folks. The name Peanuts (slang for a small person) was chosen by the syndication company and Schulz, who died last year, never liked the name. Good grief!

Harvey McGavin


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