When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher Mrs. Pearl Fairbetter assigned each of her students to do a report on a scientist. That day when I went by the lumberyard on my way home from school, I saw a paper bag of soggy boiled peanuts that had been placed on the counter. While my grandfather and I ate goobers, I told him about Mrs. Fairbetter’s assignment. Pappy suggested, “Kirk, you ought to do a report on George Washington Carver. He’s a fellow who did more with peanuts than anybody.”
I learned from a biography of George Washington Carver that this former slave became a scientist and discovered three hundred uses for peanuts. A teacher with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, Caver devoted his life to conducting 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, to name a few.
So many uses, but the best use is to boil and eat them!
I am the eldest of eight children. Dad and Mama were the proud grandparents of forty-five grandchildren. When we have a family gathering, it is a big event. Even when some cannot attend, we still have a crowd.
Last Friday night Clare and I attended a combination bridal shower and potluck dinner for my niece and her fiancé. The buffet table was laden with an abundance of many of our favorites. My brother Bill, who drove from Eastern North Carolina, brought ten pounds of boiled peanuts.
Several years ago, 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 delicious, hot, salty 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, which is a little like eating raw oysters on the half shell. You just let them slide around in your mouth a second before gulping them down.
Some of our guests enjoyed them; others turned away in disgust, saying, “Those things are so gross!” By bedtime the bowl was empty.
Peanuts have long been a Southern staple. A handful of salted peanuts funneled into a glass bottle of RC Cola, Pepsi, or Coca-Cola makes a concoction my Uncle Will called Dixie Drizzle. A paper bag of parched or roasted peanuts is perfect at a baseball or football game. But hot peanuts, boiled to perfection, are the crème de la crème of Southern snacks.
My father-in-law, Mr. Jack, had great success raising peanuts in his spacious garden in Leesville, South Carolina. My mother-in-law, Miz Lib, parched a good many to serve as snacks. She also kept a good supply of boiled peanuts in her freezer for those times when Ben returned home from places too far north and too far away.
Peanuts require a long, hot growing season. They need a well-drained, light, sandy soil with plenty of organic matter. The soil should be loose, not clayish and hard. Soils in the Sandhills and Lowcountry area are excellent.
The peanut is a legume. The flowering plant produces underground pods that contain the delicious seeds. Peanut plants have been in continuous cultivation for over 3500 years. They 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 ships because they were cheap and of high nutritional value.
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 a handful of red Spanish peanuts magically dropped 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. Grown commercially throughout the Deep South, most runners are used for peanut butter and peanut oil.
The Valencia variety features a bright red skin and small kernels. Valencias are sweet. Though excellent when roasted in the shell, they are even better when boiled.
No one knows just why Southerners started boiling peanuts, 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 derived from the African word for peanut, nguba.
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 tells the story.
Sitting by the roadside on a summer’s day
Chatting with my mess-mates, passing time away
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees
Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas.
Just before the battle, the General hears a row
He says, “The Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now.”
He looks down the roadway, and what d’ya think he sees?
The Georgia Militia cracking goober peas.
I think my song has lasted just about enough.
The subject is interesting, but the rhymes are mighty rough.
I wish the war was over, so free from rags and fleas
We’d kiss our wives and sweethearts, and gobble goober peas.
Late summer into early fall is prime time for boiled peanuts. In the Southern clime, roadside stands or pickup truck peddlers offer bags of the tasty treat. 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.
Like okra, black-eyed peas, collard greens, grits, and pork barbecue, boiled peanuts are indigenous to our Southern culture. 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 and suck boiled peanuts. Inevitably, somebody’s eyes are bigger than their stomach. They gobble enough goobers to make themselves ill.
Last Friday night my sister Mamie was moaning and groaning after eating a double ration. “Sorry you’re feeling bad,” someone sympathized.
“It’s okay. It’s kinda’ like having a baby. The joy of the experience more than makes the pain worth it.”
She should know. Like her mother before her, she’s the mother of eight. Mamie really likes boiled peanuts!