Every child who grows up in the United States hears the story of George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a botanist and agriculturalist. Carver is best known for devising over 300 uses for peanuts—from ink to glue to soap, not to mention a great many recipes for peanut-based foods. Although I’ve often wondered why I don’t see peanut paint or peanut insecticide at my local hardware store, I have the utmost respect for Carver’s discoveries and for the versatility of this humble legume.
Peanuts have got to be one of my top ten favorite foods. I love peanuts in or on chocolate, ice cream, Pad Thai, satays, soups, sauces, and just about everywhere else. They’re especially good on airplanes (which otherwise tend to have a rather metallic taste). So when I heard about a peanut-based beverage that also reputedly had fantastic health benefits, I couldn’t wait to try it. The product in question is the suspiciously named Signs and Wonders brand peanut milk, developed right here in San Francisco. Although you can buy it from a number of small stores, the best place to get it is the KK Cafe near the corner of Haight and Divisadero Streets, where it was invented.
It’s the Great Peanut, Charlie Brown
The story goes like this. Jack Chang, who along with his wife Margaret owns a tiny burger joint/coffee shop called the KK Cafe, loved peanuts. But due to chronic gum disease he was unable to chew them, so he set about making a drink that would enable him to enjoy his peanuts in convenient liquid form. It took him months to get the recipe just right, but being a frugal person he felt obliged to drink all the failed batches. As he consumed increasing amounts of this concoction, he noticed that he felt more energetic, his allergies cleared up, and his gums returned to health. He even stopped losing his hair. There could be no other explanation than his peanut drink—well, that and God, but I’m getting ahead of myself—so the couple began recommending the stuff to all of their customers suffering from various kinds of ailments. Sure enough, this person’s arthritis went away, that person’s skin rash healed, and soon testimonials were pouring in and word began to spread that the Changs had invented a cure-all in the form of a tasty peanut drink.
What Chang calls “peanut milk” is a nondairy product made primarily from ground peanuts and water, with some sugar, other grains, and a few herbs and spices. Interestingly, it tastes almost exactly like a mixture of ground peanuts, water, and sugar—which is to say, in my humble opinion, kind of gross. It was all I could do to get through a single 8-oz. (240ml) bottle—and remember, I’m speaking as a peanut lover here. Other people clearly differ in their opinion of the flavor, consuming, in some cases, several quarts per day. Or perhaps they’re too enthusiastic about its supposed health benefits to concern themselves with taste. In all fairness, it does certainly taste much better than, for example, a mixture of cough syrup, castor oil, and spirulina, to pick three ingredients completely at random.
The Changs are careful not to make specific health claims for their product in its labeling or advertising; all the same, they do point to the huge number of letters they’ve received as anecdotal evidence of peanut milk’s ability to confer on the drinker an astonishing range of health benefits. To be sure, the individual ingredients are nutritious. Peanut milk contains vitamins, minerals, and protein, and is relatively low in calories, so it’s reasonable to believe that it could provide energy and support one’s immune system, in addition to being a healthier drink than soda (or, for that matter, most other beverages). But the stories of its ability to cure everything from asthma to cancer are as hard for me to swallow as a suspension of ground peanuts.
For Jack and Margaret Chang, the explanation of peanut milk’s seemingly magical powers is simple: their formula is a God-given miracle—hence the name “Signs and Wonders.” Personally, I’d feel a bit uncomfortable attributing a recipe to God, especially a recipe whose taste strikes me as, shall we say, less than heavenly—and which, we are adequately warned, could be deadly to those with certain allergies. I wouldn’t go so far as to chalk up all the alleged benefits of peanut milk to the placebo effect, but I would expect that if it really does have curative properties, similar benefits could be achieved by consuming the ingredients in more conventional forms.
Even though peanut milk didn’t impress me, increasing numbers of customers swear by it. With barely any advertising other than word-of-mouth and a few news stories, peanut milk has grown in popularity beyond the point where Jack and Margaret can produce enough on their own to meet the demand. So they’ve outsourced production to a factory across the bay in Hayward, California. A few years ago you could purchase peanut milk only at the KK Cafe, but it’s now available in dozens of stores in the San Francisco Bay area, with a deal for national distribution reportedly in the works.
Surprisingly enough, not one of George Washington Carver’s peanut products was “magic peanut elixir.” But then, Carver did achieve considerable success, fame, and influence, and peanuts helped to propel at least one person to the presidency of the United States. You know, now that I think of it, maybe with a bit of chocolate that peanut milk wouldn’t be so bad after all. —Joe Kissell