Boiled Peanuts and a Sense of Place
“I never eat boiled peanuts except when they are in season (July through September), because they are only good when made from freshly dug ‘green’ peanuts – and the small, red-skinned Valencias are the best.”
When I wrote my first book about the cooking of the South Carolina coastal plain (Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, 1992), I was trying to present as honest a survey of our traditional foods as I could, without sacrificing the integrity of a single dish or ingredient. At the time, I would no more have eaten a boiled, previously parched jumbo peanut from Virginia or North Carolina than I would have eaten local oysters in July or peaches in February.
I was also trying to be as scholarly as possible, with solid historical documentation of what I was calling traditional. It was not always possible. For example, stories of Thomas Jefferson’s single-handed importation of many of the foods that were South Carolina favorites just didn’t ring true to me. Surely eggplant had been here in the subtropical lowcountry before it had been in Virginia. Combing through plantation journals, diaries, shipping records, and newspapers hadn’t proved my theory, however, until I found several mentions of Guinea squash – still a common name of Solanum melongena here among oldtimers.
You won’t find eggplant called “Guinea squash” in The Oxford English Dictionary, in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, in Hortus Third, Cornucopia II, or in Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World. But I found the term – and, hence, plant, in numerous unpublished colonial papers. Encouraged, I soon thereafter stumbled on Henry Laurens’s mention of tomatoes growing in his downtown Charleston garden, twenty years before Jefferson’s. But peanuts – particularly boiled – still refuse to give up their roots.
I had always assumed that you could define the South as boiled peanut territory, but, in fact, there are many southerners who have never even heard of them. For those of us who know and love them, boiled peanuts have probably always been a part of our lives. We do not recall a first tasting, but the thought of boiled peanuts conjures profound memories of places and people that we always associate with them. It has been suggested to me that perhaps boiled peanuts aren’t really about taste but about those memories, but I don’t think that that’s true, either. I love them whether I’m eating them salty and warm on a brisk autumn day near the shore, or cold, right out of the refrigerator, as a leftover snack.
I’ve often said that the South is more emotion than nation – that describing the boundaries of the region is all but impossible. I’ve been asked to join “southern” organizations that include only the states of the Confederacy, but I know lots of folks from Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oklahoma who consider themselves southern. Few may think of northern Virginia as truly southern, though most West Virginians would be insulted if I called them anything else.Some writers have tried to define the South as where you are automatically served grits with breakfast, but there are pockets throughout the region where corn has never been ground to be used as a hot breakfast cereal. So grits aren’t any more typical than boiled peanuts. But both of those southern foods do evoke profound memories.
I think of the late fifties, before interstate highways and air-conditioning brought the hordes of people “from off” to the South Carolina lowcountry where I was reared. When I was in the sixth grade, I would go water skiing with the Salleys. Their daughters Walton, Ding, and Sam (D.D., their father, must have really wanted boys!) taught me how to ski. They had a black cook who would boil up big batches of peanuts and put them in plastic Sunbeam bread loaf wrappers. We’d take them to Lake Murray, and D.D. would pick out a deserted island in the middle of the lake to use as a base for our day-long adventure. We’d take turns skiing until our arms and knees hurt. I remember trying to time our stops so that we’d land by one of the floating bags of peanuts. We’d just drop the rope and slowly sink down into the muddy water. The Salley girls could lean over and pick up a bag from their slaloms. I could barely get within ten feet of them. But no one loved the boiled peanuts more than I, and I always recall those floating bags of the warm, salty snacks whenever I eat them today.
Memories like those may simply come as a response to the inevitable questions about boiled peanuts that arise these days at the outdoor events where peanuts are served. Invariably there is now someone who has moved here from off and who wants to know more about them.
Salley is an old Orangeburg County name. Settled by Germans and Swiss in 1730, the county is still largely populated by descendants of its originally settlers, though by the time we moved there, it was seventy percent black. (Salley, South Carolina, is in nearby Aiken County; it is home of the annual Chit’lin Strut Festival.) We weren’t Old Orangeburg; we weren’t even South Carolinians. We had moved there when I was three from the bayous of Louisiana, where my father worked in the chemical industry. He and Mother both were from Tennessee: she, from the western part of the state – McNairy County, later of Walking Tall fame; and he from the hills around Knoxville.
Recently, I asked Dad (who is a great cook and who, in the fifties, was a member of Les Amis du Vin and had a wine cellar in Orangeburg) when he first remembered tasting boiled peanuts.
“Never heard of them till a trip to South Carolina in 1950. Everybody in Orangeburg ate them! In the Cajun country, everybody ate sausages – rouge et blanc – and tried to outdo each other with the intensity of the pepper.”
My father has a summer house in the mountains of North Carolina now, so he’s back near his childhood home. But he says he never saw boiled peanuts in the mountains when he first started going back up there about 9 or 10 years ago.
“Now,” he says, “all the roadside stands have them!
“We grew peanuts for our own consumption when I was a lad. Granny would soak them in brine, dry them, and then roast them in the oven. Salted in the shell. Of course, these were not green peanuts.”
Green peanuts. That’s the real key to understanding them. I used to not eat them except in late summer, though these days I’m not as picky. There are so many hybrids being grown now that taste pretty good – though I have never had a Virginia peanut (a variety known as “jumbo” in South Carolina) that tasted as good as the small ones – and that are available fresh (“green”) from spring through fall. Of course, we never get green Virginias down here; they’re always dried. The difference between fresh and dried is the same for all legumes, and a legume is, after all, what a peanut is.
Kathi Purvis, the Food Editor of The Charlotte Observer, says she comes from a family, Georgians all, who are “boiled peanut fanatics.”
“When I was a small child in Eastern North Carolina, people treated my family like we were odd because we boiled our peanuts,” she recently confided via e-mail. “Parched and roasted peanuts are much more common in North Carolina and Virginia. I’ve long maintained (and had to, having spent much of my life in a non-boiled peanut state) that boiling peanuts makes much more sense than roasting them. They are, after all, a legume, and we would certainly never consider not boiling a kidney bean or a Great Northern.”
The current trendiness of sushi bars throughout the country might help popularize boiled peanuts. Soybeans boiled in the shell – edemame — are becoming a very popular appetizer. I have a Japanese friend who visited Charleston, where I live, one summer, and when I offered her boiled peanuts, she took to them immediately, saying, “These taste very much like edamame. We eat them with beer at the baseball games.” Which is exactly when a lot of southerners eat them.
John T. Edge, the Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, admits that they are “bar none,” his favorite snack. He admits to having “fond memories of going to the South Carolina State Farmer’s Market in Columbia and buying them there. It always seemed that was the epicenter of boiled peanut culture for my family.”
Columbia is about forty miles from Orangeburg. It’s real peanut country. But when I went to college in Georgia, half the people I met, it seemed, came from south Georgia, where there are 15,000 peanut farmers. But not all southerners, much less Georgians, are fond of boiled peanuts. Some well-known authorities on southern cooking are loathe to enjoy them.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Jim Auchmutey, a native of the big city, “hates them. I have tried to like them. Every year, when we’re driving up to the mountains to see some leaves, my wife Pam, a Savannah native, makes me stop beside a boiling cauldron to buy a bag. She eats a bunch of them – suck, swallow, spit – and then I try one to see if my tastebuds have changed in the past year, the way I suddenly liked cheese when I became a senior in high school. Boiled peanuts haven’t happened for me yet. They always taste like those salt pills the coaches told you to take in track to keep from throwing up.”
I prefer boiled peanuts that aren’t all the same size, so that some of the smaller ones are cooked so soft that you can eat the shell as well as the peanuts. I asked Lucille Grant, one of Charleston’s great cooks, and the granddaughter of a slave, if she had always eaten boiled peanuts.
“Oh, yes,” she mused. “Boiled peanuts were one of my granddaddy’s things. He really prided himself on his peanuts, and he would only grow those little Spanish ones. He’d come from the fields with some dug-up bushes and he’d boil them up and they were always so good! But you can hardly find those little peanuts any more, and they really do taste the best.”
Peanuts are grown in 9 states, but only about one percent of them are those little Valencias – and most of those are grown in New Mexico, far from boiled peanut territory. Nearly half of the peanuts grown in this country go into peanut butter.
Growing up in Orangeburg, I heard peanuts called ground-nuts, goobers, goober-peas, and pindars, but the dictionaries and usual sources haven’t helped much with those words, either. Sir Hans Sloane published a natural history of Jamaica in 1707 in which he described the pindal, or Indian Earth-nut, but the first citation the OED lists for goober is 1887. We know that the words goober and pinda, like okra, gumbo, and yam, are of West African origin. Food writers mostly avoid any mention of boiled peanuts, but Jessica Harris, the eminent scholar of the African diaspora, has found boiled peanuts in Ghana, whence the recipe probably arrived in South Carolina, and in Brazil, whence it arrived in Africa. The peanuts were simply boiled and eaten as a snack in Ghana – or with boiled ears of corn on the cob; in Brazil they were served as part of a Candombl? spiritual ceremony.
There are a lot of websites about peanuts on the internet, but I’m still at a loss to find much recorded history about boiled ones. Peanuts are still grown primarily in coastal southern states — Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Texas — as well as in Oklahoma and New Mexico. They require a long growing season and are very sensitive to frost. It’s no wonder the recipe for boiled green peanuts didn’t travel inland — the green peanuts didn’t, either. I’ve found no mention of boiled peanuts in the many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources I’ve relied on for years in my research on the foods of the South, but I’m not surprised. There are also very few written recipes for some of the most basic dishes of the coastal South — especially for those for fish and vegetables. I do think it’s telling that peanuts continue to be grown mostly in the coastal areas where West Africans were the majority prior to the Civil War. Nevertheless, culinary experts from New Orleans admit to knowing nothing about them. It’s just not a Mississippi Delta thing.
It’s apparently not a Virginia thing, either. Robert Waldrop is a Virginia writer whom I’ve known since our college days in Athens, Georgia. “First off,” he told me, “Virginians abhor the thought of boiled peanuts. My mom, from Richmond, never heard of them till my family all started sharing an old beach cottage on Fernandina Beach, Florida, in the 1950s. I asked Shelby and Polly, neighbors of mine, if they had boiled peanuts growing up. All one of them said was a very direct, ‘Lord, no, I’m from Richmond!’
“We got the old beach cottage each summer with my Uncle Hardy…Aunt Babs, and my cousins [who] lived in Blackshear, Georgia. I remember the peanuts getting boiled being a big occasion all by itself with the same mystique as crabs and shrimp.
“My mom says when she first saw Hardy eating them he was on the verandah in a rocking chair all by himself. She asked him what they were. He said, ‘Sex food.’
“My mom said she asked to taste one, and Hardy said, ‘No!’
“And he ate them right in front of her!”
Perfectly boiled southern-style peanuts are always salty, but not overly so. They should perfectly accompany a beer, iced tea, or soft drink, though lately I’ve seen people eating them with white wine. It’s best to eat them outside where it doesn’t matter if wet shells are tossed on the ground. I think most boiled peanuts are probably purchased from roadside stands, eaten while they’re still hot in the car, the shells tossed out the window. Those stands may now be appearing in places where they never were before as southerners move to other parts of the country, but the popularity of boiled peanuts still seems very localized.
Fran McCullough, though, who edited my first two books on southern cooking, tells me that “there’s a funny little urban gardenish place up in Harlem that often has a very excited sign saying something like ‘We Got Em! Boiled Peanuts!’ and I always think of you because I know you’d scream ‘STOP!!!!’
and run right in.”
I know exactly where she’s talking about. It’s the same place I’d go for my collards and butt’s meat (smoked hog jowl) when I used to live in Manhattan. Some folks from South Carolina drive a truck up to New York once a week during the late summer and fall, full of old-time southern specialties that just aren’t available elsewhere, like just-picked okra without a hint of black on it, and thin porto rico sweet potatoes, no more than two inches in diameter and pointed at both ends. They get green peanuts, the little Valencias, before they dry up and lose that fresh beany flavor. They boil them in salted water for a couple of hours, then let them soak in the water until they’ve reached the right degree of saltiness, just like back home. They usually sell out, right from the kettle, before they cool off.
I was at a dinner party recently with some friends from Alabama. He’s from Mobile – Old Mobile – and she’s from Opelika, near the Georgia border. He never ate them when he was growing up, and wasn’t introduced to them in college, either (he went to Washington and Lee, in Virginia). She knew them well, from summers spent in the Florida panhandle – about as deep in the South as you can get. They are both fond of them now, and try to offer them amidst the pistachios and almonds that they serve in their home in the Hollywood Hills (for, I know, if no other reason than to assert their southernness).
A new southerner standing near us at the bar overheard our conversation and screwed up her face in disgust.
“I just don’t see how you can eat those things,” she said. “I can’t stand the texture.”
She proceeded to eat olives and a black bean dip with gusto, and I just smiled and said, “Fine, that means more for us.”
I knew that if she had liked them, she would have used the plural, “y’all.”
Boiled peanuts are perfect for casual outdoor affairs, where the shells can be tossed on the ground. They take several hours to cook and cure, so start them well in advance of your guests’ arrival. Figure on one pound per beer drinker.
If you don’t live in a peanut-growing area, ask an Indian grocer to get you some. Or give Sidi Limehouse and Louise Bennett a call at Rosebank Farms
(843 768-9139). Sidi and Louise are South Carolina farmers who grow and boil green peanuts. You might be able to convince them to ship you either raw or boiled peanuts in season (late spring through fall).
3 pounds green, freshly dug peanuts, preferably the Spanish variety (about 2 quarts)
3 quarts water
3 tablespoons salt
Boil the peanuts in the salted water for 1-2 hours, until they are cooked to your liking. I like to be able to all but eat the shell.
Let the peanuts sit in the water until the desired degree of saltiness is reached.
3 pounds will feed two boiled peanut lovers through about two beers.