Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

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Is Peanut Butter a Condiment?

The idea of this post started from a casual conversation about food seasonings.  The person I was talking to referred to peanut butter as, “her favorite condiment.”

I retorted, “Peanut-butter is not a condiment.”

“Yes, it is. It’s not a standalone food.”

“No it’s not. It is not used as a garnish like ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise.”

“Then what exactly defines a ‘condiment’?”

Neither one of us could come up with what exactly characterized a condiment.  Furthermore, when I asked other people what exactly the definition of a condiment was, no one could really answer me definitively (pun intended).   So to satisfy my curiosity, I did some research on the history of condiments.

First I went to Merriam-Webster for the definition of condiment, which defines it as “something used to enhanced food; especially: a pungent seasoning.”  According to the dictionary, the term dates back in various forms to the 15th century. 

Next, I looked up the definition of peanut butter, which was defined as “a paste made from ground roasted peanuts.”

Neither definition offered a real solution to the question, “Is peanut butter a condiment?”

So I dug back deeper to the writings of the great agricultural chemist and inventor George Washington Carver, who is widely regarded as developing and popularizing modern peanut butter.  In his famous How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, here is Carver’s original recipe:

Shell the peanuts; roast just enough so that the hulls will slip off easily; remove all the hulls by gently rolling, fanning, and screening; grind very fine in any sort of mill, passing through several times if necessary; pack in cans, bottles, or jars, and seal if not for immediate use. Some manufacturers add a little salt and a small amount of olive oil; others do not, according to taste. For small quantities of butter a good meat grinder will answer the purpose. If the nuts are ground fine enough no additional oil will be necessary.

Carver clearly sees peanut butter in the same class as a “butter” and not, say, as a type of spread such as ham salad.  But is it a condiment?


George Washingto Carver probably would not have put peanut butter on his hot dog

In A Treatise on Diet by John Ayrton Paris, defines condiments as, “substances which are, in themselves, incapable of nourishing, but which, in concert with our food, promote its digestion, or correct some of its deleterious properties.”

This definition of condiments would lead one to believe that peanut butter is not a condiment, since it has nourishing qualities. 

However,  Paris classifies condiments in three categories:

  • Saline
  • Spicy or aromatic
  • Oil

The oil category is what concerns us most here.  According to Paris, plain butter is considered part of this category of oleaginous condiments.  So if plain butter is considered a condiment, logic goes that peanut butter would also be considered an oleaginous condiment based on Carver’s original conception of the food product. 

But could you put it on a hot dog?