Love me, love my gunk: Why don't Brits love peanut butter as much as Americans do?

American Mark Vanhoenacker delights in introducing his British partner to New York's cuisine. But one foodstuff jeopardises their special relationship.

The stateside popularity of Downton Abbey has observers on both sides of the shining sea trying to shake out the secrets of the show's American triumph. But for half-British, half-American couples with their own private take on the Special Relationship, much of the fascination turns on the understated intercultural playbook of Lord Grantham and his curvy-as-a-dollar-sign wife.

In our half-sceptred, half-star-spangled eyes, the show reminds us that some truths of transatlantic coupledom are apparently timeless. And they become particularly vivid after a move from one half's home country to the other's, as when my British partner and I recently decamped from London to New York.

It's not that New York has unearthed disagreements on any traditional Anglo-American fault lines. On Special Dilemmas from whether people should be thanked or hanged for suggesting that others should "have a nice day", to which country has more dumb rules, we're on the same side (or long ago accepted the other's lovable ravings).

But the stateside move has revealed some new intercultural fender benders in the food department. Some, it turns out, were long simmering, as when – to choose a recent example – a certain British half says to their American half, it's all very well and good you've learned how to make Victoria sponge cake, but you've been serving it at the wrong time all these years – in the name of Boudicca it is not an after-dinner dessert.

If our relationship requires I eat more cake in the afternoon, so be it. But on another issue, there will be no peace, no accommodation – only a tumbleweed-swept, Atlantic-sized, barely demilitarised zone across which we glare with a ferocity not seen since 1776. I speak, of course, of peanut butter.

It's not that Britons don't eat peanut butter – they bought about £50m worth of it last year, according to Mintel, a market-research firm. But Businessweek reports Americans spend about $1.8bn (£1.1bn) a year on it – almost five times as much per capita. On either jam or honey, Mintel's research shows that Britons spend twice as much as they do on PB; even British marmalade expenditure exceeds peanut butter outlays. Americans, by contrast, spend about as much on peanut butter as on regular butter. Its jaw-cementing joyfulness is at home in an astonishing 91per cent of American households. With allergy prevalence running at about 2 per cent, it's not a stretch to suggest that nearly every American household without allergy concerns is buying it.

Including half of ours. Home in a land that embraces PB with an enthusiasm otherwise reserved for toppling Third World dictators, I've fallen in love all over again. On sandwiches – with jam, with bananas, or alone on bread, the highest calling of which, I've rediscovered, is as a convenient peanut butter carrying case. It makes celery palatable, desserts delightful, apples and bagels extraordinary, though it's at its finest straight from the jar, its glories unmoored from lesser angels.

My partner remains unconvinced. When I read aloud the descriptions of PB-graced desserts on an American menu, the look of sad disdain suggests I may as well have rolled up a dollar bill and grabbed a hand mirror. We've agreed to disagree, of course, but in the context of our own asymptotic cultural convergence (not to mention Britain and America's), it's the small differences that are often most interesting.

"But seriously, why don't you like it?" I ask.

"Because it's disgusting."

Such reactions aren't unusual: for many adult Britons, peanut butter conjures a revulsion only slightly less Manichaean than Marmite – whereas for Americans, a distaste for peanut butter is about as rare as a dislike of English accents.

For expert insight into this nutty disconnect, I turned to Max Clark, a teacher at Leiths School of Food and Wine, and co-author of Leith's Meat Bible. Ms Clark is in some ways the British exception that proves the rule, having fallen early and hard for peanut butter. First as a welcome childhood alternative to something "rather ominously called 'Sandwich Spread'" – then as the crowning glory of a long-ago concoction at her local sandwich bar, a four-out-of-five-days tower of crispy bacon, iceberg lettuce, mayo, redcurrant jelly... and crunchy peanut butter. Today she recommends PB for sandwiches of all sorts, for baking, of course, in Thai cuisine and as the lynchpin of a mean sambal sauce.

Professionally though, if not personally, she recognises the palate uprisings that peanut butter can induce in her compatriots. It may be a texture thing, she suggests – the "viscous, mouth-coating" quality that Brits may find "fantastically repulsive". Then there's the question of the PB&J, the iconic American peanut butter and jelly sandwich, of which the average US child is said to eat 1,500 or so by age 18. Perhaps the concept troubles a more fundamental (and as-yet uncorrupted) British loyalty to jam – that "it just feels wrong to mix it up"?

British consumers also tend to eat peanut butter earlier in the day and earlier in life. According to Mintel, breakfast is the repast of choice for about three-quarters of British peanut-butterers, as against just 28 per cent for lunch. American numbers are more or less the reverse (not to mention the 19 per cent who have it at dinner). And while 59 per cent of British households with children aged between five and nine buy peanut butter, just 32 per cent of single-person households do. In America, two-thirds of PB is consumed by adults. Perhaps peanut butter's most fundamental British problem is that it can't quite loosen its children's-breakfast-food shackles.

Whatever the reasons, though, peanut butter is one of the nails protruding from the well-varnished structure of the Special Relationship – and it's time to hammer it in.

Realism dictates we not ask Americans to reduce their consumption of peanut butter (or petrol, or anything else) to British levels. Instead, the focus has to be on supersizing Britons' PB uptake – something that at this point we'd still like to accomplish peacefully, without resorting to air strikes on your marmalade factories.

British consumers tend to be more health conscious than their American cousins, so perhaps that's the best opening salvo. The US government approved a heart-health claim for peanuts back in 2003. Even if you assume the entire apparatus of American statecraft rests in the sticky clutches of peanut lobbyists, there's always the EU, which said just last year peanut butter has an important role in cholesterol regulation.

Then there's the weight-loss possibilities. Britain, in its sensible halfway-house between the Continent's historically intact cuisines and America's latest food neuroses, may be well-placed for the peanut butter diet. There's even a book, The Peanut Butter Diet (which tells us how to lose weight while still enjoying peanut butter every day) and occasional comparisons to the Mediterranean diet. (Take that, Italy!) Meanwhile, a friend suggests a CIA or Blackwater-led covert campaign to replace the peanuts in British pubs with little tubs of peanut butter.

If serious health claims, whack-job diets and bar-top sleights of hand aren't quite up to the task of quintupling British peanut-butter consumption, we can always appeal to Britons' growing interest in home-crafted delicacies. Clark, of Leiths, says it's "ridiculously easy" to make your own peanut butter: put roasted peanuts in a food processor until the contents resemble peanut butter. If you're feeling fancy, add salt and honey to taste.

Then she pauses; what she says next brings red, white and blue tears to my eyes: "But it tastes too healthy. I prefer the processed stuff."

She didn't need to convince me and for a brief shining moment every one of the 3,451 miles between us had vanished. I went to the kitchen and picked up a spoon. I turned the lid.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor