Just when did peanuts go bad?
Forget the bird flu, the much-touted deadly virus that has so far wiped out one entire person in China. The real threat to humankind appears to be the lowly peanut.
How peanuts suddenly became Public Enemy Legume No. 1 is unclear. Millions of children who were raised on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches apparently simply "dodged the legume" forced upon them by uncaring parents. (Since we have mentioned "legume" twice, a short science class is in order. Peanuts, it turns out, are not nuts at all, but legumes. A legume is an ugly, gnarly little root pod that grows underground. Historians believe that the seed inside of those pods became known as a "peanut" because nobody would want to eat a "mushed-up legume seed and jelly sandwich." Calling a legume a nut is one of the many misnomers that occur in the "nut" family. For instance, walnuts have nothing to do with walls, the Brazil nut does not come from Brazil, hazelnuts are not related to Hazel the nutty housemaid of the 1960s television show, and macadamia nuts have almost nothing to do with macadam road construction.)
For centuries the peanut was revered for its peaceful nutritional properties and much loved by elephants. Looking back over the historical record, the only blemish on the peanut came when peanut rancher Jimmy Carter was elected president of the United States. Had Carter raised okra instead of getting rich off of peanuts, he never would have become president, and we wouldn't be in Iraq today. (It's a long story. We'll talk about it later.)
It's only been in the last 10 years that peanut allergies have become epidemic. Some people say it's just anti-peanut hysteria. But those people have names like Jif and Skippy, so you have to watch out there.
A peanut allergy can be so severe that if a kid even sees a picture of a peanut in a magazine, he can go into shock. Airlines no longer give out little bags of peanuts to passengers, which was a silly thing to do anyway. Cracker Jacks has begun to substitute chunks of okra for peanuts in their boxes. And schools such as Aina Haina Elementary have declared themselves "peanut-free zones."
Teachers and volunteer parents search bag lunches brought from home to make sure they contain no peanuts. Students who want to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches soon will be relegated to lunch tables in the parking lot (near the smoking teachers).
How did this happen? Were kids when I was growing up simply quietly dying of peanut poisoning and we were never told about it? Or has something happened to the immune system in the past decade that has turned peanuts into killing machines? And if peanuts could go bad, what's to stop cheeseburgers and fries from suddenly turning on us?
I suspect it has something to do with the decrease in breast-feeding in favor of chemical-laden baby "formulas." One purpose of breast feeding is to pass on to the child immunities enjoyed by the mother, or at least her taste for spicy foods.
The fact is, not a lot of kids are dying from peanut exposure. Only 200 people nationally die each year from all types of allergic reactions. And many people grow out of allergies.
I was allergic to eggs when I was a kid. But my dad seemed to have so much fun eating a soft-boiled egg (chipping off the little top of the egg, spooning the gooey mess onto toast) that I willed myself to overcome the allergy.
Maybe kids suffering from "peanut envy" when they see other children enjoying a PB&J sandwich eventually will overcome their allergic reactions to the lowly legume. Or maybe a more people-friendly peanut can be invented.
Charles Memminger, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail email@example.com