Take a drive down a country road in the South and two things are bound to happen: your car will emerge a little dustier than before—and you’ll undoubtedly pass a rough-hewn, handwritten sign with the simple proclamation, “Boiled Peanuts.” The salty, soggy nut is a Southern snacking staple, a simple culinary art that stretches back across centuries and continents.
The peanut actually originated in South America; there it was discovered by Portuguese and taken to Africa sometime around the fifteenth century. The hardy nut flourished in African soils, quickly spreading across the continent and replacing the native groundnut. The peanut did so well on its new continent that for a long time scientists believed the nut must have originally hailed from Africa. Africans incorporated peanuts into their cooking, in dishes and as snacks—including boiling the shelled nut. Even today, boiled peanuts are still popular street food in Ghana and Nigeria.
Slave ships arriving in the South in the eighteenth century brought with them traditional fare and crops along with their principal import. Peanuts, with their long shelf life and easy preparation, were often a primary provision for the voyage as well as a valuable import. Through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries slaves would boil and enjoy the salty snack. As with other African fare, like okra and black-eyed peas, boiled peanuts were soon incorporated into the culinary consciousness of white Southerners. Some people claim that boiled peanuts actually got their start with Confederate soldiers, who relied on the nut to supplement their meager rations, but, although it is likely that the gray coats snacked on boiled peanuts, their recipes undoubtedly hailed from Africa.
Often called “goober peas,” a term deriving from the Angolan word for peanut, “ginguba,” boiled peanuts spread quickly throughout the South, though their popularity stopped below the Mason-Dixon (further evidence of the snack’s derivation from African traditions). As roasted peanuts gained popularity up North at circuses and baseball games, Southerners incorporated the softer alternative into social functions like weddings and celebrations.
As with fish fries and pig pickin’s, Southerners even began to hold social gatherings that centered entirely around the process of boiling peanuts. After peanut crops were harvested in the early fall, farmers would take excess green peanuts from the crop and boil them in large, cast iron pots; when family and friends arrived, carrying supplementary snacks and entrees, the pot would be bubbling merrily on the sidelines.
The popularity of boiled peanuts has not waned over time. In fact, in May of 2006, boiled peanuts became the official snack food of South Carolina. The tradition of boiling peanuts and their place in the hearts of Southerners remain much today as they did a century ago. Even the process, simple and delicious, remains unchanged.
Most people prefer to use green or raw nuts, which are distinguished from their mature relatives because, although they have reached full size, they are not allowed to fully dry unlike nuts used for roasting or in peanut butter. The green or raw peanuts, preferably of the Valencia strain, are dunked into a vat of boiling salt water. The longer you boil the peanut, the softer the result. The boiled peanuts are then served as is, presented in their moist hulls and eaten by the dozen. Except for those who add traditional Southern seasonings like Old Bay (which transforms them into Cajun Boiled Peanuts), Southerners leave the recipe exactly as it was when brought across the sea so long ago.
In addition to being superbly delicious, boiled peanuts have other advantages over their roasted cousins. Boiling the nuts pulls the antioxidants out of the brittle shell, and the finished product retains four times the antioxidants of roasted peanuts. Doctors also use boiled peanuts to treat those with peanut allergies; in boiled form, the nuts contain less of the irritant that bothers those with allergies, making them the perfect product for building a tolerance to peanuts.
The next time you spot one of those ramshackle stands peddling boiled peanuts, stop and pick up a sample. The result of your expedition: a damp paper sack, filled to the brim with the warm, soft fruit of the South and a little bite of history.