Holy Food

One of the undisputed benefits of working for a publisher of a wide variety of academic books is the opportunity to learn about different topics that might otherwise I might never have considered. For example, given the recent popularity of food studies (and this is probably fodder for its own post) authors have been producing micro-histories of specific comestibles. One that was recently featured in a YouTube short is peanut butter. One of the saddest food allergies, to my way of thinking, is that of the peanut. Peanut butter is such a singular symbol of childhood that it is a shame it is also such a potent poison for many. I grew up thinking that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, but although he certainly was an innovator of peanut cultivation and disseminator of recipes, he was not the inventor. Peanut butter has been around for a long, long time. The modern food product is probably attributed to Marcellus Gilmore Edson, a Canadian who milled roasted peanuts into a kind of semi-liquid and received a patent for it.

What makes peanut butter a fit topic for a blog on religion is the work of John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg was awarded a patent for a processing technique that led to the peanut butter we recognize today. Kellogg, whose name is more often associated with breakfast cereals, was an early vegetarian. Much of the impetus for his food experimentation goes back to the fact that he was a devout Seventh Day Adventist. The Adventists, biblical literalists, believed in promoting health through eating wholesome foods. Peanuts, a great source of non-animal protein, were seized upon by Kellogg as an alternative to butter, as well as a theologically satisfying food. Not only a food producer, he was also a promoter, and we eat breakfast cereal today largely through his efforts. For many, the day begins with a biblically inspired food.

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On kicks of nostalgia, or when I forget to buy a vegetarian alternative, I still take peanut butter sandwiches to work for lunch. I never considered this a religious activity, although my own vegetarianism likely has religious, as well as humanitarian, roots. In this post-religious age that we inhabit we sometimes forget that many of our most basic behaviors go back to religious beliefs. Sure, the promoter of peanut butter may have stumbled upon it without having fallen under the spell of Ellen G. White’s teachings, but the fact remains that Kellogg’s religion and his commitment to health were deeply intertwined. And the next time I reach for the Skippy or Jif or Peter Pan, I’ll be, in my own way, acknowledging the power of a religion I don’t even believe.

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