Cheers for our state snack – boiled peanuts
By: Brenda Harrison
While enjoying some salty boiled peanuts over the recent holiday, I wondered aloud who was the genius who decided that boiling a peanut might be tasty.
“Probably happened during Civil War times,“ commented someone in my hearing. That certainly seemed like a plausible possibility.
Not so, I discovered. Charleston-based food and drinks writer Robert Moss in his blog, “The Real Origins of the Boiled Peanut” on seriouseats.com, says that’s a common myth.
Truth is African Americans had been boiling peanuts in the South for a long time. Boiled peanuts, like other iconic Southern foods, began with black Southerners, not whites, Ross reports.
Peanuts arrived in the Lowcountry via a circuitous route, he continued. The plant originated in South America, and the Portuguese took it to Africa around 1500, just after they first came into contact with it in Brazil.
It spread quickly across Africa, becoming so widely used that early botanists believed the plant must have originated there. The peanut was very similar to the indigenous African groundnut, a staple of the local diet, but due to its higher oil content and easier cultivation, it soon eclipsed its indigenous counterpart.
Peanuts arrived in the South sometime in the 18th century on slave ships, which were frequently provisioned with them for the voyage. In his 1809 history of South Carolina, David Ramsay noted that peanuts were “planted in small patches chiefly by the negroes for market.” During this period, they were widely referred to as ground-nuts, ground peas and goobers, a term derived from the Angolan word ginguba.
Peanuts had been eaten boiled for centuries in Africa, and it seems to have been a common way of preparing them in antebellum South Carolina when they were green and fresh out of the ground. A Union soldier, W.H. Shelton, who was captured in 1864, was given boiled peanuts by some of the African-Americans he encountered after escaping prison in Columbia.
During the second half of the 19th century, peanuts became one of the country's most popular snack foods – but in the roasted form. In Northern cities, roasted peanuts were eaten in theaters, at circuses, on trains, and at baseball games. But, eating them boiled seems to have been confined to just a limited part of the Carolinas, Ross says.
Around the turn of the 20th century, boiled peanuts began popping up on the society pages of South Carolina newspapers. In 1903, when the Society of Civic Improvement in Manning held an old-fashioned corn shucking, the refreshments served included gingerbread, root beer, and boiled peanuts. They appear to have been quite the fashionable thing to serve at weddings and parties in the smaller towns that dotted the countryside – St. Matthews, Olanta, Lynchburg and Cameron.
From there, boiled peanuts spread southward. By 1913, they had arrived in Macon, Ga., and five years later they were being served at a range of social functions in Tampa, Fla.
Curiously, one part of the South slow to adopt the boiled peanut was the largest peanut-producing state. In 1917, a writer for the Richmond Times Dispatch recalled that when he mentioned boiled peanuts at a meeting of peanut growers in Suffolk, Va., the farmers reacted with incredulity, having never heard of such a thing. “About all I could say in reply,” he wrote, “was that if these same farmers would go to Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville, Tampa, or New Orleans at this season of the year they would probably find that at the fruit and peanut stands the most popular seller of all would be these same boiled peanuts.”
By the 1920s, the popularity of the boiled peanut was such that they started getting attention from bemused Yankees. In September 1925, a Universal wire service report datelined Orangeburg, S.C., profiled “peanut boilings,” which surmised its readers had never heard of “unless you have visited the 'goober' sections of the Carolinas.
South Carolinians have been lingering over and enjoying their boiled peanuts ever since, noted Ross. In 2006, the state legislature declared them South Carolina's official snack food.
We native South Carolinians continue to enjoy what outsiders refer to as “wet peanuts.” For those who don’t appreciate our summer delicacy, well, that leaves more for those of us who do.