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Hungry For MO is a podcast from KCUR Studios where hosts Natasha Bailey and Jenny Vergara celebrate the stories behind Missouri’s iconic foods, from barbecue to pizza and beyond. Supported by the Missouri Humanities Council.

Forget peanuts — thank Missouri's George Washington Carver for food trucks and fake meat

George Washington Carver was born enslaved in Missouri, sometime around 1864. He taught for 47 years at the Tuskeegee Institute, until his death in 1943.
Crysta Henthorne
KCUR 89.3
George Washington Carver was born enslaved in Missouri, sometime around 1864. He taught for 47 years at the Tuskeegee Institute, until his death in 1943.

George Washington Carver is slotted in American history lessons as "the peanut guy." But the Missourian led a revolution in biofuels, food trucks, plant-based meats, alternative medicines, and even civil rights.

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George Washington Carver’s list of accomplishments features a lot of firsts — some of which he didn't even live to see. When Carver died in 1943, he became the first person other than a United States president to have a national monument established in his honor.

You can still visit the George Washington Carver National Monument today in Diamond, Missouri.

Carver was a critical advocate for civil rights and environmental conservation, an artist and musician, a pioneer in sustainable agriculture, biofuels, alternative medicines, and plant-based meat substitutes. But the full depth of his resume is often reduced to a single plant: the peanut.

“He is so underrated,” says Rafia Zafar, author of "Recipes For Respect: African American Meals And Meanings."

Zafar studies foodways, the intersections where food and culture collide, and she specifically explores the contributions behind Black figures in history who are often forgotten or misunderstood.

Like many children in the U.S., Zafar grew up learning that Carver was guy who invented peanut butter — which is not true. It was Canadian Marcellus Gilmore Edson who patented peanut butter in 1884.

But for sure, Carver did extensive, important work with the peanut. He promoted that and other plants like sweet potatoes, soy beans and cowpeas because they were both good to eat and good for the soil — they pull nitrogen out of the air and replenish it into the ground.

And although he didn't invent peanut butter, Carver did create over 300 uses for the legume, from peanut milk and cheeses to peanut-based imitation chicken. He invented peanut medicines and household items like soap and detergents — the list truly goes on and on.

Carver famously shared his research and these findings before the Peanut Growers Association in 1920, and then before Congress, which launched him into the public sphere and turned him into one of the most well-known African Americans of his time.

But those innovations sometimes overshadow everything else Carver did to change the world, both inside agriculture and out of it.

Botanist and inventor George Washington Carver at work in his laboratory.
USDA History Collection, Special Collections, National Agricultural Library
Botanist and inventor George Washington Carver at work in his laboratory.

Now, Zafar is on a mission to share the truth about Carver, and raise awareness of the deeper impact and meaning behind his accomplishments.

“It’s not like George Washington Carver came out of nowhere,” Zafar says. “This is part of the whole community’s move forward.”

From Diamond To Tuskegee

Even at a young age, Carver was determined and bright.

Carver was born enslaved in Missouri, sometime around 1864, and never knew his biological parents. When he was just an infant, he and his mother were kidnapped by a band of bushwhackers; Carver was rescued but they never found his mother.

He was raised by Moses and Susan Carver on a farm in Diamond, Missouri. By the time he was about 12, Carver decided he wanted to pursue education, and walked nearly 10 miles by foot to the Black school in Neosho, Missouri.

Carver’s drive led him from Missouri to Kansas, where he was accepted to Highland College. But when Carver arrived at the all-white school, administrators saw he was Black and turned him away.

He eventually landed in Iowa and attended Simpson College, where he discovered his love for art and botany — he loved to paint and play the piano. He transferred to what is now Iowa State University, where he became the first Black student to graduate and receive his masters degree, and then the school's first Black faculty member.

That’s when Booker T. Washington came calling. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute, a Black University in Alabama, and he wrote a letter inviting Carver to build an agriculture department there.

Carver accepted the job in a letter back to Washington: "It has always been the one great ideal of my life to be the greatest good to the greatest number of 'my people' possible, and to this end I have been preparing myself these many years; feeling as I do that this line of education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom to our people."

“He needed to be there,” Zafar says. “If Tuskegee was a place where he could get an education. He struggled to get an education. So that’s why Tuskegee was so important. And that model of black self sufficiency that Booker T. Washington was preaching.”

A drawing by George Washington Carver of the Tuskegee Institute Movable School's Jesup Wagon.
Tuskegee University
A drawing by George Washington Carver of the Tuskegee Institute Movable School's Jesup Wagon.

Helping Farmers 'Flourish'

At Tuskegee, Carver led the way in advocating for crop rotation and subsistence farming. And he created one of the first food trucks: the Jesup Wagon.

“He was ahead of everybody," Zafar says.

The Jesup Wagon was a buggy that Carver designed to haul tools and materials. It provided him a mobile classroom to meet sharecroppers where they were at, in rural areas working in the fields. During the height of Jim Crow discrimination, Carver traveled throughout the South, pursuing his mission to teach all poor struggling farmworkers — Black and white.

"Whenever the soil is rich, the people flourish, physically and economically," Carver said. "Whenever the soil is wasted, the people are wasted. A poor soil produces only a poor people."

Zafar says this was just as revolutionary as Carver's famed work with peanuts.

“He didn’t think that you know, good health or good farming should belong to one group more than another,” she says.

George Washington Carver holding a piece of soil in 1906.
U.S. Library of Congress
George Washington Carver holding a piece of soil in 1906.

Carver published 44 bulletins of best practices to help educate and empower farmers. He taught the importance of crop rotation, and other tips for sustainability. He promoted foraging, like mushroom hunting, and urged the use of commonly-found plants like purslane and dandelions — which many consider to be weeds — to make nutritious salads.

Carver went on to develop a friendship with Henry Ford, bonding over their shared desire to develop alternative plant-based energy sources. And he advised Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi on nutrition.

Carver remained at Tuskegee for 47 years until his death. He never married or had any kids, but he considered his students to be his children, writing over 25,000 letters in his lifetime.

Zafar says Carver was a true renaissance man, with a deep spirituality and love for the world.

“It wasn’t just about growing food, but it’s also about feeding the soul,” she says.

In a recording made in 1939, just a few years before his death, Carver shared this bit of wisdom: “Sometimes it is wise not to look for too much appreciation. The main thing is to be sure you’re right and go ahead regardless of whether people appreciate it or whether or not they don’t. Because in time they will appreciate it.”

Support for Hungry For MOcomes from the Missouri Humanities Council.

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today.

In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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