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Please Pass the Boiled Peanuts!

September 21, 2009

Clare and I hosted a passel of guests over the Labor Day weekend. Most of our visitors came from places north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Other than a family member from Nashville, Tennessee, and Clare’s brother, Ben, who lives in Maine, we had a house full of Yankees.

Ben has deep roots in South Carolina. When he returns to this part of the world, he starts drooling for Southern cuisine. By the time he arrives in the Palmetto State, he is ready for boiled peanuts.

We placed a bowl overflowing with the delicacy on the coffee table in our den. Ben helped himself. So, too, did several of the others who were completely unfamiliar with boiled peanuts. Bless their hearts! Ben gave a demonstration to the uninitiated, showing them the fine art of sucking goober peas. Some enjoyed them; some did not. By bedtime the bowl was empty.

Peanuts have long been a southern staple. A small bag of salted peanuts funneled into a glass bottle of RC Cola, Pepsi, or Coke is an excellent concoction. A paper bag of parched or roasted peanuts is the perfect concession at a baseball or football game.

Late summer into early fall is prime time for boiled peanuts. In the southern clime, roadside stands or pickup truck peddlers offer bags of tasty boiled peanuts. For the last twenty-seven years, the town of Pelion has thrown a Peanut Party every August. The local Ruritan Club boils nearly 130 bushels of peanuts.

The peanut is a legume. The flowering plant produces underground pods that contain the delicious seeds. The peanut plant has been in continuous cultivation for over 3500 years. The peanut comes in four varieties.

Virginia peanuts have been grown in the eastern region of the United States since the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Virginias, also called big whites, have the largest kernels and are the most commonly sold snack peanut.

Spanish peanuts have a smaller kernel with red skin. My grandfather had a peanut machine at the lumberyard. Deposit one penny in the slot, turn the knob, and magically, a handful of red Spanish peanuts would drop from the glass globe into your waiting hand. A nickel would buy an ice cold Coca-Cola, the perfect companion for the salty redskins.

Because of their high yields, Runners are the most dominant variety in the United States. Most Runners are used for peanut butter and peanut oil. They are grown throughout the Deep South.

The Valencia variety features bright red skin and small kernels. Valencia peanuts are sweet. Though excellent when roasted in the shell, they are even better when boiled.

Peanuts originated in South America and were carried to Africa by early explorers. Traders took them to Spain and North America. In the Colonial period peanuts were used as food aboard ship because they were cheap and of high nutritional value.

George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a renowned scientist, discovered three hundred uses for peanuts. A teacher with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, Caver devoted his life to research projects connected with Southern agriculture. His work revolutionized the economy of the South by liberating it from dependence on cotton. Carver suggested that peanut derivatives could be used as adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes, ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, and wood stain.

Perhaps the best use is to boil them and eat them.

Boiling peanuts has been a folk practice in the south since the nineteenth century. In late August, when the peanut crop came in, surplus peanuts were boiled. Extended family and neighbors gathered round to share the feast of goober peas, a name that is a derivative of the African word nguba.

Much like a fish fry, a pig picking, or a Lowcountry shrimp boil, a peanut boil became a social occasion. My family has often congregated around the chopping block in my mother’s kitchen to shuck boiled peanuts. Like okra, black-eyed peas, collard greens, grits, and pork barbecue, boiled peanuts are indigenous to our southern culture.

No one knows just why southerners started boiling peanuts. At one point, they became a necessity. After Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia, the Confederacy was split in two. Rebel soldiers were deprived of much needed supplies. In order to feed the Army, the Confederate government provided peanuts, which the soldiers boiled over their campfires. A well-known folk song, “Goober Peas,” tells the story.

My friend Carl Bostick worked for a time with James and J. D. Cromer. The slogan of their store in downtown Columbia boasts “the worst peanuts in town.” Though Cromer’s sells both parched and boiled peanuts, Carl swears by the boiled ones.

Carl shared his recipe with me. “Always begin with dry, not green, peanuts. Get those red kind. Soak them for twelve hours. Stir in the salt, about one cup for each pound of peanuts. Boil them for one hour, then start tasting. Take them off the heat after about fifteen more minutes and taste, taste, taste. When they are exactly right, crisp and salty, drain off all the water and enjoy!

Problem is, after Carl gets through tasting, there are not many boiled peanuts left.

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2009

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