When I found a reference on the internet to the first recipe for peanut butter cookies, I had to try it. Not because I expected them to be good peanut butter cookies, or even peanut butter cookies at all, but because I was, to put it gently, skeptical. I’ve learned to be skeptical of most claims to primacy in food history. Too often they aren’t all that carefully researched — not only because there may be other sources to consider, but because the people who make these claims have not actually tried the recipe to see if it is what it looks like. (That’s at least as true of professional historians as of amateurs.)
These “peanut wafers,” it turns out, are not what they may look like. They’re not the first of anything. They’re not even cookies. They’re more like experimental Progressive-era health food. But they’re interesting, and — surprisingly enough — they’re actually quite good.
The peanut wafers come from Mrs. Rorer’s New Cookbook, published in 1902. The author, Sarah Tyson Rorer, was a nationally known food writer (or “cookery expert,” to use the historical term), principal of a Philadelphia cooking school, and editor of Table Talk magazine. I’ll start with the recipe:
Mix a half cup of peanut meal with a half cup of peanut butter; beat thoroughly, then add gradually one and a half cups of sugar. Dissolve a half teaspoonful of soda in a half cup of warm water; add to the nut mixture and then work in about three cups of Graham meal. The dough must be rather hard. Roll out into a very thin sheet, and cut into squares of two inches. Bake in a very slow oven until a golden brown. Sarah Tyson Rorer, Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book (Philadelphia: Arnold And Company, 1902), p. 535.
Like most of the culinary experts of her time, Rorer worked hard at improving American cooking. And like most of today’s experts, she believed Americans ate too much meat. Her 1909 Vegetable Cookery and Meat Substitutes was one of the earliest attempts to elevate vegetarian food to something Americans might actually want to eat. “Most ‘vegetarian’ cookbooks,” she observed, “…contain many unhygienic, indigestible, tasteless and unattractive dishes.” Whether her own chapter of meatless main dishes improved on them is a matter of opinion. “Mock tenderloin steak” made from nuts and bread crumbs, steamed in cans, chilled, sliced, and broiled, was unlikely to win many converts to Meatless Monday, and mock ham, despite its far longer list of ingredients (kidney beans, English walnuts, black walnuts, pecans, almonds, pimientos, seasoning), looks no better. (I’d test the recipes, but I’m writing a book on baking, not meat, so I’m afraid you’re on your own.)
Eating less meat meant eating more nuts, which thanks to improvements in agriculture were cheaper and more readily available than ever before. Peanuts were the cheapest and most plentiful of all, but there was no market for them. Before the 1890s, nearly all the peanuts Americans ate were roasted whole and sold by vendors on streets or at fairs and circuses, and a person can only eat but so many roasted peanuts. To help farmers the USDA promoted peanuts’ nutritional benefits — or “fuel value,” as it was called — pointing out that peanuts contained more energy per dollar than practically any other food. That attracted the attention of culinary experts who believed fervently that Americans, and in particular working-class Americans, needed to eat better. In 1882, Juliet Corson, a columnist for the New York Times, developed an entire menu from peanuts. The dishes were, she said, “quite suitable to place upon the bill of fare for ordinary dinner use” — not exactly high praise, and neither her peanut croquettes nor peanut coffee, the last resort of desperate homefront Confederates, took off.
Corson’s peanut desserts were more promising. “Cookies” wasn’t yet a generic term for small, sweet baked goods, but here’s Corson’s recipe for Peanut Cakes:
Pound one pint of roasted pea-nuts to a paste in a mortar; mix in one pint of light brown sugar and the whites of five eggs beaten to a stiff froth; put the mixture into small buttered pans, and bake the cakes light brown in a moderate oven. Juliet Corson, “Hints for the Household,” New York Times, April 16, 1882.
This is essentially a peanut macaroon, and as with almond macaroons, the cook has to grind her own nuts. I haven’t found another recipe quite like it, and it was more than a decade before peanut cookies began appearing with any regularity in magazines and cookbooks. The peanut cookies of the 1890s were simply sugar cookies (not very rich ones) studded with chopped peanuts. A few experts recommended crushing the peanuts with a rolling pin or pounding them in a mortar, which boosted the peanut flavor and gives a more consistent texture.
From there it should have been a short step to making cookies with peanut butter — but it would be another generation before peanut butter cookies gained popularity. Peanut butter wasn’t commercially available until about 1910, and it’s difficult to make at home. Grinding cold nuts will make nut meal, not nut butter; the nuts have to be warmed to release their oil. The process had been patented in 1884, but peanut butter was used mainly in manufacturing candy. When Mrs. Rorer wanted to use it as an ingredient, she had to give directions for making it:
Roast the nuts, shell and blow off the brown skins. When making it in large quantities, it will pay to have a bellows for this purpose, or put the peanuts on a coarse towel, cover them with another towel, rub them gently, then blow off the skins. If you use salt dust them lightly with it and grind at once. Pack the butter into glass jars or tumblers, cover them and keep in a cool place. This may be used plain or diluted with water. Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book: A Manual of Housekeeping, p. 535.
She gave separate directions for peanut meal, in which the peanuts are roasted just long enough to loosen their skins and ground cold. To make her peanut wafers, both the peanut meal and the peanut butter were required, and remember that her readers didn’t have food processors. That made them, like Juliet Corson’s menu twenty years before, essentially a novelty.
They were also, like Corson’s peanut cakes, a historical dead end, and the Graham flour points to the reason: these peanut wafers were health food. Yes, they have a lot of sugar, but sugar was a good thing in 1902; it gave energy, which everybody needed. (See my earlier post on fuel value.) Graham flour, though, ought to be a giveaway. It’s simply coarse-ground whole wheat flour, and then as now, people don’t make whole-wheat cookies just because they taste good. They made them to make a point about nutrition, or — especially — to sneak some nutrition into their children’s diet without the burden of modeling healthy eating.
Look closely, too, and it becomes clear that these aren’t cookies at all, but something more like crackers, with peanut butter substituting for shortening — peanut Graham crackers, essentially. And that’s yet another reason they didn’t take off; Americans have never been particularly inclined to bake their own crackers.
I feel for Mrs. Rorer, though, because for all their impracticality, her peanut wafers are really quite good. That was a surprise; I half-expected them to be awful. The flavor is nicely nutty, both from the peanuts and the whole wheat flour, though I think they need salt. They’re hard but crispy, and they shatter just a bit when you bite into them. They’re undeniably sweet, but they’ve also got a good amount of protein, so think of them as crunchy, long-keeping energy bars.
My adaptation is below. I should note, for the sake of historical accuracy, that Sylvester Graham’s crackers were pointedly unsweetened, and the use of his name in this context would make him shoot spitballs from heaven, but “Graham crackers” is correctly evocative, so we’re just going to have to live with the irony. And they’re certanly healthier than anything you’re likely to buy commercially with his name on it.
Recipe: Peanut Graham Crackers
- 3/4 cup (about) unsalted roasted peanuts
- 1/2 cup natural peanut butter (no added oil or sugar)
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup lukewarm water
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
- Pulse the whole roasted peanuts in a food processor until they resemble cornmeal. Don’t overprocess. (The peanuts won’t release their oil and turn into butter unless they’re warm, but too much processing can warm them.)
- Combine the peanut meal, peanut butter, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Dissolve the baking soda in the lukewarm water and stir in. Stir in enough flour to make a stiff dough — you may need a bit less or more, depending on your flour. (I typically need a bit less.)
- Roll the dough out thinly, 1/8 inch or so, and cut into rough 2-inch squares. (I use a pizza wheel for this.)
- Place on lightly greased or papered baking sheets and bake at 325°F for 30 to 40 minutes, until they are hard and lightly browned. Cool on racks. Store in a tightly closed container; they’ll keep for a few weeks.