When I first set out to make these chocolate-covered peanut-butter balls, I intended not to refer to them by their traditional Midwestern moniker. Surely, I thought, neither the State of Ohio nor its flagship public university can claim any special relationship to sweetened peanut butter in a chocolate shell. There’s no reason I have to invoke tOSU’s mascot in the middle of football season in Michigan. But then I found some pictures of actual buckeyes nuts, and I’ll be damned if they don’t look uncannily like their namesake.
Real buckeyes are the seeds of trees in the genus Aesculus, which includes between 13 and 19 species (depending on how you count) that grow all across the Northern Hemisphere. The name “buckeye” is generally attributed to an American Indian word for the seeds and the nutritious mash they made from them after roasting—“hetuck,” which means “eye of a buck.” One species in particular, Aesculus glabra, became commonly known as the “Ohio buckeye,” even though it grows throughout the American Midwest and Great Plains regions, ranging from southern Ontario to northern Texas, apparently because the botanist who gave the tree its English name first encountered it on the banks of the Ohio River.
However, there’s also a California buckeye and a Texas buckeye and even a Japanese buckeye. And the seeds of all the trees in the genus—including Aesculus glabra—are also commonly known as horse chestnuts, after the larger family they belong to (Hippocastanaceae). So there doesn’t seem to be any simple botanical or taxonomical reason why the “buckeye” became so firmly associated with the state of Ohio.
How the Buckeye Became Ohioan and Ohioans Became Buckeyes
According to one story, it all goes back the spectacularly-named Ebenezer Sproat (or Sprout), who was a Colonel of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. After an unsuccessful post-war stint as a merchant, he became a surveyor for the state of Rhode Island and bought stock in the Ohio Company of Associates, which sent him west with the group led by Rufus Putnam that founded Marietta, Ohio, the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory. There, Sproat became the first sheriff in the NW Territory. And aside from being a relatively prominent citizen, he also happened to be quite tall and, “of perfect proportions,” according to Wikipedia, whatever that’s supposed to mean. The Indians in Ohio were impressed with his height and/or his importance, and thus came to refer to him as “Hetuck” or “Big Buckeye.” A similar account suggests that it was mostly his height—claiming he was 6’4” (which would have been tall indeed in the 18th C.) and that he earned the sobriquet on September 2, 1788 when he was leading a procession of judges to the Marietta courthouse. Indians watching the giant of a man walk by began calling out “Hetuck, hetuck.”
But it’s not entirely clear why that nickname would have ever been generalized to the shorter residents of the region. The more commonly-accepted theory is that the association between buckeyes and Ohio(ans) has something to do with William Henry Harrison.
Harrison was a resident of Ohio in 1840 when he made his first, successful presidential run. According to the Wikipedia article about him, he had already acquired the nickname “Buckeye,” as a “term of affection” when he served in the U.S. Congress, first as a representative of the Northwest Territory and then as one of Ohio’s Senators—presumably because of the prevalence of the tree in the regions he represented. However, the general consensus elsewhere is that Harrison and his presidential campaign advisors carefully cultivated the buckeye mascot and nickname to bolster Harrison’s image as a “man of the people.” Particularly in Ohio, log cabins were frequently made from the wood of buckeye trees and people in rural areas used to string up the nuts that would accumulate wherever the trees grew, so the buckeye was a useful symbol of the kind of rustic frontier populism that Harrison was trying to project.
Meanwhile, they portrayed the Democratic incumbent, Martin Van Buren, as an elitist, or even as a royalist intent on the restoration of the British crown, largely by publicizing the fact that he had hired a French chef for the White House and purportedly enjoyed French wine.Van Buren was actually the son of small upstate New York farmers and educated in rural schoolhouses, whereas Harrison was the son of wealthy Virginia slaveholders and educated in elite New England academies—he even studied medicine with the renowned Dr. Benjamin Rush before deciding he didn’t want to be a doctor. But Harrison successfully managed to convince people he was one of them with the help of bottles of whiskey shaped like log cabins and campaign propaganda like this pull card:
Marvin Van Buren smiles when drinking “A Beautiful Goblet of White House Champagne”
pull the string, and he frowns with “An Ugly Mug of Log-Cabin Hard Cider”
Shortly after that, popular songs and texts start to show up that refer to “Buckeye boys” and “Buckeye girls” and to Ohio as “the Buckeye State.” In the 1850s, Samuel Sullivan Cox wrote a series of letters based on his travels to Europe and the Ottoman Empire, which he published under the title “A Buckeye Abroad.” It obviously continued to the point that now, there are probably almost as many drycleaners, diners, and car repair shops named Buckeye Blank in Ohio as there are Empire Blanks in New York City.
Brutus the Buckeye, the bizarre nut-headed mascot that dances on the sidelines at football and basketball games wasn’t invented until 1965. But students, alumnus, and athletes from the Ohio State University [awkward definite article sic] were always called “Buckeyes.” The name is older than the University itself, which was founded in 1870, and was seemingly applied to sports teams from the very beginning. The short-lived AA professional baseball team that existed in Columbus from 1883-4 was also named the Buckeyes. And Jessie Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, while he was a student at OSU, was sometimes called “the Buckeye Bullet.”
But What a Stupid Reason That Would Be Not to Make Them
So even though it probably originated with a dishonest political campaign (is there any other kind?), I still feel like I have to cede the name “buckeye” to Ohio—after all, it’s older than the UM v. tOSU rivalry itself. And it just seems foolish to deny the resemblance. But it would be a real shame to let the apparent legitimacy of a name that happens to be associated with any state or school bias you against the salt-studded awesomeness of homemade chocolate-covered, sweetened balls of nut butter. Sure, they’re basically just Reese’s peanut butter cups, but you shouldn’t underestimate the difference that good chocolate, flaky salt, and having personal control over the level of sweetness can make.
I probably wouldn’t normally bother with something so…I don’t know, cliché? Pedestrian? It’s not that I don’t like simple foods or classic flavor combinations, but somehow anything consisting primarily of peanut butter and chocolate just seems like cheating. Just like it seems like cheating whenever the contestants on Chopped use bacon if it’s not one of the secret ingredients, and like a petty perversion of justice that the bacon-cheater almost always wins.
However, this recipe popped up on Serious Eats just as I was musing about how maybe I should throw together some sort of sweet nibble in case we happened to have people over this weekend—something I could make in advance and that would keep relatively well in case we didn’t have people over. These seemed to fit the bill because like most cookies, you can make them well in advance of serving, but like most candies, they won’t get stale. But what really sold me was the description of the crunchy flakes of salt in the peanut butter mixture—“like little mouth-fireworks,” the author said.
If they seem too boring as is, you could mix up the nut butter/chocolate coating combination or add a third or fourth flavor element. You could make Thai coconut version with a little chili pepper, powdered ginger, and dried coconut. Or mix in bits of toffee, puffed rice, or crumbled cookies for a different flavor or texture. You could use cashew butter or almond butter instead of peanut butter, powdered honey for some of the powdered sugar, and white or milk chocolate if any of those is more to your liking. You could even freeze little drops of fruit preserves or caramel and roll the nut butter around them so at room temperature, they’d melt into a sweet, gooey center. Now I’m dreaming of white chocolate-covered sunflower butter balls with vanilla caramel centers. You could even make a whole buffet of different buckeyes…and if you really can’t get past the name, just call them bon-bons or shmuckeyes instead. If you cede them to tOSU, I think that’s just another victory for “tWorst State Ever.”
Recipe: Peanut Butter Bon-Bons (from Serious Eats)
halved from the original, to make approximately 3 dozen
- 12 T. salted butter (or coconut oil)
- 1 1/2 c. unsalted, unsweetened peanut butter (or any other nut or seed butter)
- 3 c. confectioner’s sugar
- 1 1/2 t. kosher salt (or more to taste)
- 1 bag chocolate chips (or ~2 cups chopped bar chocolate, I used a 70% cacao)
1. Leave the butters at room temperature to soften.
2. Beat them together with a spatula or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer until completely smooth and well-combined.
3. Add the powdered sugar 1 cup at a time, mixing until it forms a thick, malleable dough.
4. Stir in the kosher salt just until evenly distributed—you want to add the salt at the end so it doesn’t dissolve into the butter. Put the bowl in the freezer for about 10 minutes.
5. Roll heaping tablespoons of the peanut butter mixture into balls about the size of walnuts (or buckeyes) and place on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper or parchment paper. Place a toothpick in each ball and return to the freezer for 30 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, reserve a few pieces of chocolate and melt the rest in 15-second bursts in a microwave or a double-boiler just until it’s about 75% molten. You don’t want the chocolate to get too warm or it will burn.
7. Remove from the heat and stir occasionally until it’s entirely melted and slightly cooled, and then stir in the reserved pieces. Wrap the pot in a kitchen towel—you want to keep the chocolate around 88F—I didn’t bother pulling out a candy thermometer, because that’s right around body temperature, so it should feel just barely warm to the touch. Otherwise, it won’t temper correctly, and will set slightly soft and greasy to the touch and may develop a white “bloom” on the surface. The reserved chips “seed” the melted chocolate with the right crystalline structure to make it harden.
8. Dip each ball in the chocolate to coat and place on waxed paper or parchment paper until firm. Remove the toothpicks and gently smooth over the hole. Store in an air-tight container in a cool place or refrigerate until ready to serve.