Posted by: acooksca | 01/21/2011

Peanut Butter Jam in Alameda

An All-American icon from Alameda

It is part of every cupboard in America. Nothing is so kid-friendly as a PBJ (peanut butter and jelly sandwich.) Yet we never out-grow our taste for peanut butter…today more is consumed by adults than kids. And our brand of choice is often Skippy Peanut Butter. About 90 million jars of Skippy are sold annually, more than any other brand of peanut butter. The origin of this all-American brand lies in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Alameda.

Alameda was a thriving island community when Joseph Rosefield arrived in 1913. With prohibition approaching he closed his wine distributorship in Denver and moved his family west. They stopped in Alameda to visit friends and became enchanted with the long beaches and gentle climate. Even then, Alameda had a history as both an active shipping port and railroad depot (it was the end point for the first Transcontinental Railroad into the Bay Area in 1869). And it was full of neighborhoods with corner stores needing goods he might provide.

Rosefield built a business of packaging and distributing foods such as coffee, dried fruit, mustard, jam, pickles and peanut butter. Peanut butter at the time was used in cooking rather than on sandwiches as it wasn’t spreadable. Oils quickly separate from ground nut butters and they are perishable. But people love the flavor. Rosefield felt if he could improve the texture and shelf life of peanut butter he’d have a distinctive product. He hired a scientist and they developed the hydrogenation process that both smoothes and extends the shelf life of peanut butter.

Rosefield began producing his new, creamy textured peanut butter in 1923 at a plant on Webster Street in Alameda. The Rosefield Packing Company trademarked the name of Skippy Peanut Butter in 1933, becoming more recognizable to kids. For eleven years, beginning in 1938, the Skippy Hollywood Theater Radio program advanced the brand name around the country. A production factory was added in Minneapolis in 1940 and Skippy became a high protein staple for service personnel during World War 2. The Alameda production plant remained in business on Webster Street until 1979, years after the Rosefield Packing Co. had sold to Best Foods, Inc.

Small town feel of Webster Street

On a bright Saturday in September, 2002, I wandered from my home over to the Webster Street business district to see what this event called Peanut Butter Jam was about. Hundreds of folks mingled in a street-long celebration of Skippy Peanut Butter in its home town. Live music was playing, food and wine booths tempted you and a peanut butter bake-off was being judged.

A Peanut Butter Queen was crowned… 84 year old Helen Montminy, of Alameda. Helen had been the first female to rise to the level of management in the Skippy plant. Frank Delfino, 76 of Castro Valley, who joined the plant in 1955 and became the chief engineer, was crowned Peanut Butter King. Both king and queen had impressive stories of how the plant remained ahead of its time with innovations in processing, packaging and product controls. And of how the plant reflected the closeness of a small town to the very last day.

The Skippy plant was torn down in 1999 and a small shopping center sits on the site. I walked over to view the new plaque erected to commemorate the spot where one determined food distributor began the grind toward an American food icon. Someone was handing out small jars of Skippy. I opened mine when I got home and it tasted as satisfying as always.

More information:
http://www.peanutbutter.com/history.aspx
http://www.peanutbutterlovers.com/history/index.html
An Article from Alameda Magazine: http://www.litwriting.com/pdf/skippy.pdf

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Responses

  1. Karen,
    I grew up in Alameda and remember constantly going on field trips to the Skippy Plant on Webster in the 1960’s. Each time you went, you would be offered a small jar of either creamy or crunchy to take home with you!


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