Monday, January 12, 2015

Food Watch: Should a person give up peanut butter on account of Bill Buckley (or Charlton Heston)?


This custom label was made for William F. Buckley's lifetime supply of Red Wing, the peanut butter he declared "paradise on earth in a jar."

by Ken

Just recently I read that some big-deal food person doesn't like peanut butter, and I just grin and bore it. I love peanut butter. In fact, as I expect I've mentioned, somewhere along life's journey I switched from childhood "smooth" allegiance to a full-fledged "crunchy" addiction. (As it happens, my older brother was the "crunchy" fan in our house.) With "crunchy," I came to appreciate, you get the feel and taste and eating actual peanuts.

It was easier to deal with high-level anti-peanut-butter advocacy, however, than to deal with certain forms of peanut-butter fandom. Now, nearly 35 years after he went public, I learn that William F. Buckley Jr. was an honest-to-gosh junkie. The NYT's David Segal reports:
Throughout a life of erudite jousting and patrician bonhomie, William F. Buckley Jr. was known as a conservative, a writer, a publisher, a talk-show host, a novelist and an avid sailor. But friends and family would say this biographical summary is incomplete without three more words: peanut butter freak.

Mr. Buckley didn’t just devour the stuff; he rhapsodized about it, telling readers in a 1981 column in National Review, the magazine he founded, that when he first married, he told his wife that he “expected peanut butter for breakfast every day of my life, including Ash Wednesday.”

This lifelong passion was nurtured during Mr. Buckley’s years in an English boarding school, when his father sent twice-a-month care packages that included grapefruits and a large jar of peanut butter. To his astonishment, British pals who shared in his bounty loved the grapefruit and spat out the peanut butter.

“No wonder,” he wrote in that same column, “they needed American help to win the war.”
It was bad enough that I had to live with that obnoxious demon's classical-music advocacy. (You know, "with friends like this . . .") Now, peanut butter too? There's some consolation in knowing that WFB's passion was for the creamy, not the chunky product. In any event, just as I didn't let Bill B's love for classical music spoil mine, I don't plan to be buffaloed by this news.


The occasion for reporter Segal's resuscitation of this blot on the good name of peanut butter is his visit to the now-shutting-down factory in Fredonia, NY, 45 miles southwest of Buffalo, of the plant where Red Wing peanut butter was formerly made, following the 2013 acquisition of the plant (where mayonnaise, barbecue sauce and jellies were also made) by food conglomerate ConAgra. The visit was made in the company of the longtime president of the company that made Red Wing, Douglas Manly, now 87. (The plant has been shutting down in stages, and is scheduled to be fully shuttered by next month.)

And Red Wing, you see, was Bill Buckley's later-life peanut butter of choice. Manly explained that it was on "a whim" ("I didn’t really think that anything would come of it") that, after Buckley's March 1981 Buckley column, in which "he wrote something about liking Skippy," Manly "asked a sales associate to send him a jar with a note that said, 'We think you'll like this better.' "
Mr. Manly was right. Mr. Buckley’s son, the novelist Christopher Buckley, said in a phone interview: “My dad’s one true quest in life was for the Platonic ideal of peanut butter. And I remember one day he announced, with a look of utter transfiguration on his face, that he had found paradise on earth in a jar with a yellow cap. And it was called Red Wing.”
Among the idle but still present equipment Manly was able to show Segal was "a peanut roaster once hailed as the world’s largest, built to process 10 tons an hour."
Mr. Buckley was on hand for the 1981 ribbon-cutting for this industrial behemoth because soon after he discovered the joys of Red Wing, Mr. Manly invited him to give a speech at the ceremony.

“Without hesitation, my dad said, ‘I’ll be there,' ” Christopher Buckley recalled with a chuckle. “I never saw him accept an invitation faster. And he’d been invited to palaces in his day and said, ‘I’ll have to think about it.’ ”

There are news articles of Mr. Buckley’s visit, which lacked only a brass band and bunting. When Mr. Buckley and his wife, Pat, reached the roaster, a few hundred employees were waiting to hear him speak. In a photo of the event, Mr. Buckley grins in a white lab coat over his jacket and tie.

“Thank you for letting me attend this historic occasion,” Mr. Buckley told the crowd, neatly finding the seam between the grandiose and the comic. He said that he wished Red Wing could be served at United States-Soviet disarmament talks, because once the Russians sampled it, “they would give up all their assets, communism and Karl Marx.”

He took questions from reporters and confirmed that his friend Charlton Heston shared his devotion to peanut butter. Though the actor, Mr. Buckley added, is of the “chunky reform faith.”

As a thank-you for his service that day, Mr. Buckley was given a lifetime’s supply of Red Wing — a dozen 18-ounce jars of the smooth variety, mailed every six months. Each had a custom “Buckley’s Best” label, with a copy of Mr. Buckley’s autograph and his endorsement, “It is quite simply incomparable.”

For years afterward, visitors to Mr. Buckley’s home in Connecticut who expressed any peanut butter enthusiasm were dared to resist Red Wing’s charms. He praised the brand so extravagantly during a radio interview on Manhattan’s WMCA that the show’s host, Barry Gray, said listeners cleaned out local stores.

“The supermarkets in my neighborhood had a run on the peanut butter,” Mr. Gray told Mr. Buckley when he next appeared on the show. “I don’t kid you. There were simply no Red Wing jars to be found for weeks.”
Other peanut-butter fanciers subsequently seconded Buckley's endorsement of Red Wing -- including, Segal reports, New Yorker writer James Stevenson, who in a January 1985 piece announced that, despite his skepticism, given his dim view of Buckley's view on most everything else, the stuff was "superb."

Ironically, Segal learned, Red Wing came into the world as a deliberate knockoff of Jif, which Manly wanted to be able to sell to stores as indistinguishable in quality but cheaper. Why then, Segal asks, "were Mr. Buckley and others so smitten?"
Mr. Manly has a guess. One way to keep down costs was to refuse to store much product. During Mr. Manly’s tenure, orders were accepted 10 days in advance, and no more, sharply limiting the amount of time jars waited on shelves to be shipped.

Red Wing may have bowled over Mr. Buckley because it was far fresher than anything he’d ever eaten. Or not. Brand devotion is often a mystery that flavor can only partly explain. Perhaps discovering an unbidden jar with an uncelebrated name helped hook Mr. Buckley back in 1981. Perhaps he’d never tried Jif.
Actually, we learn, peanut butter like the stuff once manufactured in Fredonia, which has been sold under a bunch of store-brand labels like Wegmans, Price Chopper, Tops, and Our Family, will continue to be made elsewhere in the ConAgra plants, like other products formerly made in the closed-down Ralcorp plant. The peanut butter, supposedly made from the same recipe, will come from a plant in Streator, IL. Segal reports that "Manly sounded skeptical," saying, "We can't be sure, because they won't be using the same equipment or the same personnel."

Segal notes that even if Buckley hadn't died in 2008, he wouldn't be suffering peanut-butter deprivation now.
[A]t the time of his death, he had a stockpile of Red Wing that his son described as large enough “to see the most determined survivalist through the next Armageddon.”

But the younger Buckley didn’t keep it all.

“The night before his funeral,” he said of his father, “into his coffin I slipped my mother’s ashes, his rosary, the TV remote control — and a jar of Red Wing peanut butter. I’d say no pharaoh went off to the next world better equipped.”
Well, if Bill Buckley couldn't put me off Bach, he's not going to put me off peanut butter. Or Charlton Heston either.

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