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George Washington Carver: the Man who Made Peanuts Mainstream

It's difficult to imagine a world where peanuts are a rarity. We snack on peanuts and foods with peanuts in them. We use peanut oil. And there's the ever-present peanut butter. But in the late 1800s, people considered peanuts nothing more than lowly legumes and seldom worth growing. One man, George Washington Carver, put the peanut on the culinary map. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Who Was George Washington Carver?

George Washington Carver was a genius, plain and simple, but his beginnings were humble. He was born in January 1843 as a slave to Moses Carver, a Missouri farmer, who had purchased his parents in 1855. One week after George Washington Carver was born, Confederate soldiers kidnaped him and his mother. They sold him to another slave owner in Kentucky, but Moses Carver sent an agent to retrieve them. George's mother was never found, but he returned to the Carvers, whom after the war, raised George and his older brother, James, as their own sons. George was a sickly child who could not work in the fields, so he learned how to read and write from Moses' wife, Susan.

George's insatiable quest for knowledge led him to learn all he could about plants, and he became renown as "the plant doctor" before he was even 13. By 13, he attended a school for African American children ten miles away from home. He graduated from high school in 1880 from a school even farther away and set his sights on college. The first college that accepted him refused him when he showed up because they thought he was white. Other colleges accepted him and he earned both a Bachelors of Science and a Masters at Iowa State University in Botany. He became well-known as a leading agricultural scientist. Booker T. Washington invited him to become head of the Tuskegee Institute's Agricultural Department, where he championed the causes of the poor farmers in the rural South.

How George Washington Carver Promoted the Peanut

Much of the problems with the rural South had to do with growing cotton. Cotton crops were still popular in the South, but cotton depleted nitrogen in the soil, causing poor yields and even failed crops. Carver introduced the concept of crop rotation where another crop that produced higher protein foods such as peanuts, would replenish the nitrogen. So, fields would be rotated with cotton, peanuts, and to lie fallow. But the farmers had no idea what to do with the peanuts.

Carver came to the rescue, inventing 300 ways to use peanuts, including flour, soups, paste, oil, paper, animal feed, coffee, cookies, and candy. Peanuts suddenly became popular as both industry and consumers turned to our favorite nut both for food and for products. Who knows if peanuts would be so popular today had it not been for George Washington Carver?

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