All too often, Black History Month is treated as an exercise in tokenism. Middle school students across the country get assignments to do biography reports, and George Washington Carver ends up on the list of subjects as That One Black Scientist Who Did A Thing You Can Relate To. I seriously have a problem with this approach, since it assumes that students can’t understand what he actually did do, making this whole peanut butter invention fiction an elaborate way to talk down to people while also de-fanging history. Well. NOT TODAY! I’m aiming for this to go up deliberately well clear of February, and this post is all about just how important George Washington Carver actually was, his key accomplishments, and why his work was so badly needed.
The Agricultural South – King Cotton
In the early years of the 20th Century, as before, the Southern United States was deeply dependent on cash crop agriculture. Centuries of putting cotton back on the same land had sapped nitrogen and other nutrients out of the soil. The crop on which the region’s economy depended was slowly weakening. To make matters worse, even as soon as the Civil War, other cotton-producing regions in the world had increased production, and the price of cotton had continued a slow slide downwards. Cotton remained as labor-intensive as ever, but wealthy landowners used sharecroppers rather than slaves – although these tenant farmers were often the descendants of slaves themselves, still tied to working another’s fields, through economic hardship. A sharecropper is a farmer who doesn’t own the land they work, and in exchange for their labor, gets a share of the profit from the crop grown on the land. Although some could work a portion of the land for their own kitchen gardens, it was more economical to put as much of a cash crop on the landlord’s fields as possible, and hope for a high profit. Frequently, they bought seed from the landlord, as well as other supplies, and were constantly in debt, unable to purchase their share out, and take up land for themselves elsewhere, or even move away. This fragile cycle of debt-slavery and cash cropping for cotton continued, with harvests getting slowly weaker, and the sharecroppers steadily poorer, continued.
The Nitrogen Cycle
While this slow-motion death spiral of soil degradation and poverty continued in the South, some important advances in our understanding of how plants grow changed the way we farm forever. Most significantly, for Carver’s impact, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault recognized in the late 19th Century that legumes like beans, vetch, and peanuts can fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, and therefore add nitrogen to the dirt they grow in rather than take it away. This nitrogen-fixing ability of legumes can be used to increase crop yields; if you’re growing crops that need a lot of nitrogen, it’s best to plant them either after legumes on a rotation, or with legumes in the same field. Intercropping and crop rotation for healthier and more fertile crops had been well-known and practiced before – by several Native American groups, for example, as in the Three Sisters intercropping system – but this approach was new to commercial agriculture in the United States, and required a change in culture. The picture below shows a cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) plant’s root system, and the round nubs attached to the roots are the root nodules, which house a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that works with the legume to suck nitrogen out of the air and feed the plant with it.
Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletins
Working at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver ran the agricultural experiment station, and published scientific research as well as a series of booklets, which contained advice for farmers on best practices and increasing crop yields. Carver’s genius lay not only in scientific study, but also in understanding that economic, ecological, and social systems are interwoven. If you wanted to improve the life of the sharecropper, you had to increase the productivity of the land. If you wanted to increase the productivity of the land, planting legumes could go a long way toward nurturing the soil. But it wasn’t enough just to tell people to plant beans, peanuts, and cowpeas. These crops had to make money for it to make any sense for farmers to grow them. You had to provide people a concrete benefit for themselves. Rather than merely promoting the sowing of soybeans, Carver developed lots of recipes and uses for legumes, and popularized them through the widely-circulated bulletins, developing an economic rationale for introducing them into the regular crop rotation in the South.
Here’s a selection of these bulletins, so you can go read a few yourself (all of these are available at Archive.org):
And, of course, the blockbuster smash hit –
They’re a very interesting read, actually. Some of them are closer to scientific surveys, presented for the public. Some of them focus on home economics tips, like how to preserve the kitchen garden harvest and save money. Many of them, of course, promote growing legumes, notably the one on alfalfa, above. The message is clear – grow alfalfa, make money on fat, healthy livestock (and, incidentally, restore nitrogen to the soil).
Disaster and Recovery
Meanwhile, as cotton yields gradually dropped, disaster finally struck the weakened cash crop. The boll weevil arrived in the United States and proliferated in the vast cotton fields. Cotton crops across the South were ruined. Famously, however, the town of Enterprise, Alabama turned away from cotton, and planted peanuts instead. As other communities scrambled to find and plant new crops, Enterprise prospered as early adopters of legumes. They commissioned a giant neoclassical statue of a woman holding aloft a giant boll weevil, crediting the insect with saving the town by forcing the farmers to wean themselves off the cash crop early. The statue’s still there, and it’s glorious.
When you drive past a corn field planted in soybeans this year, you’re seeing the results of George Washington Carver’s tireless promotion of legumes and crop rotation. The agricultural South could well have collapsed with its dying cash crop, but Carver’s work at the Tuskegee Institute Agricultural Experiment Station and the bulletins paved the way to a more sustainable future – the one we live in. If you want to make a difference on a large scale, it’s not enough to just tell people to do things differently; you have to provide them with real improvement to their own lives, and a pathway to success.
As promised, here’s a couple of recipes adapted from the bulletins. I chose two that looked good, and were pretty different from each other, and had accessible ingredients for us city people of the slightly more Northern future. Interestingly, food ways have changed quite a bit in the century between the bulletins and the present, so it’s absolutely worth reading the original, to see what’s different. For example, the peanut recipes take it for granted that you have access to raw peanuts, not roasted and salted ones, and the regular raw peanut, or at least blanched, is probably what the recipes are calling for, unless they actually specify otherwise. Interesting. Also, with recipes of this age, they tend to assume that the cook knows more about techniques than we might today. So for a biscuit recipe, they’ll just say “to any good biscuit dough add…” rather than explaining how to actually make biscuit dough from scratch, which is a pretty involved process that you’d definitely have to learn first. I’ve gotten these as close as I could to what the original probably was like, while substituting ready-made ingredients where possible and convenient (thanks to Carver, of course), and explaining things that the recipes don’t.
Very obviously, the peanut salad contains peanuts.
My take on No. 61, Peanut Salad Number Two from How to Grow the Peanut: and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption. I use ready-made mayo as a close approximation of the scratch-made salad dressing in the original recipe.
One tart green eating apple. One cup of roasted salted peanuts. Mayonnaise or plain salad dressing to taste. Romaine lettuce. Core and chop the apple, and pulse in a food processor with the peanuts until small pieces. You can also just chop them up, as long as it ends up the same way. Add mayo to the peanuts and apple mix and stir. Clean and carefully pull off the lettuce leaves whole, portioning them out onto serving plates. Spoon apple/peanut salad over the leaves and serve. (You’ll need a knife and fork to cut the lettuce up and eat the salad.)
A version of No. 39 – Cow Pea Loaf (A fine substitute for meat) from How to Grow the Cow Pea and 40 Ways of Preparing it as a Table Delicacy.
You’ll need: a sturdy mixing bowl, a very strong fork and unflinching resolve, or some sort of mixing machine like an egg beater. A baking pan, and an oven. A cup of sauteed diced green peppers and onions (think: fajita leftovers, or get someone to help you cook them). A can of black-eyed peas (they’re cow peas and they’re already cooked). Melted butter or neutral tasting vegetable oil. Okay, here we go! Open the can of black-eyed peas into the bowl, reserving the can liquid, and mash and whip the peas with the fork, until smooth and light. This is going to take a while. Mix in the peppers and onions. If the mix is too tough and crumbly, add the pea juice until it’s like a very stiff pudding that can be sculpted. Grease the baking pan, and form a loaf out of the pea/peppers/onions pudding. Bake in the oven on about 350 F, and brush the butter or oil over it periodically to keep it from drying out. Cook until browned and firm. Basically, pretend it’s a meatloaf. There’s a recipe for cow pea custard pie, too. I also really want to try the cow pea salads, which look honestly great, but we already have a salad on this list. Oh, and it’s a substitute for meat because meat was expensive.
Go read the bulletins, seriously. There’s so much more than peanut butter to be found here.