Southern Belly: Tony the Peanut Man, South Carolina
"Got some boiled / Got some toasted / Got some stewed / Got some roasted." —Tony Wright, peanut vendor
Editor's note: Occasionally what looks at first glance to be a conventional guidebook transcends the genre in surprising ways. John T. Edge's Southern Belly is just such a read, which is why I'm pleased that he has allowed us to excerpt selected items from it on Serious Eats, where they appear every other week. —Ed Levine
By John T. Edge | Street vendors were once ever present on Southern streets. In Canton, Mississippi, Frank Owens walked the courthouse square, selling pecan, chess, and blackberry pies from a cut-down cardboard box. In Lufin, Texas, a tamale vendor known as Hombre worked high school football games. In the French Quarter of New Orleans, Sam De Kemel peddled four-for-a-nickel waffles while wearing a white chef's tocque and playing a bugle.
Reform movements geared toward improvements in public health introduced onerous regulations and wiped out most of them. The fast-food industry finished off the rest. Or so I thought. Of late, I've begun to spot a few retro renegade operators. I've met a man who vends red velvet cakes from the trunk of his car. I've met a woman who sells pimento cheese sandwiches from a basket bolted to the front of her ten-speed. I've met a passel of hot dog vendors. (For a year I, too, owned a weenie wagon.) But no one has honed a shtick like Tony the Peanut Man, peddling sacks of peanuts since 1991 in Charleston, South Carolina.
He wears a bow tie, fixed tight around the collar of a T-shirt. The front is blazoned with his own smiling mug. The rear boasts his slogan-cum-song, "Got some boiled / Got some toasted / Got some stewed / Got some roasted," which, when he's selling—and he's always selling—wizened Tony sings with the bravado of a pubescent opera star.
On his head is a baseball hat, woven in Gullah-style from sweetgrass. "I do the market," he tells me, referring to the City Market, where local women of African descent have sold their signature baskets to tourists. "I do most anything to make a buck. Gotta move. Gotta sell."
Tony Wright's salt-roasted peanuts are good. And his boiled peanuts are great; they have that telltale dank earth taste. If you can't find him at the market, he's probably working a high school football game. Or a college basketball game. The local Piggly Wiggly sells his canned peanuts. But Tony is worth tracking down. If you don't meet the man, you won't hear the song, a ditty that links him to generations of African American vendors past, people like the late Ben Campbell, the Charlestonian Tony modeled his pitch after, the man all remember as the King of Peanuts.