How Congress Almost Killed the Southern Boiled Peanut

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Boiled peanuts, the essential Southern snack food, owe their origin to enslaved Africans during the colonial era, who brought over both the peanut plant and practice of boiling them. Previously I covered the dish's two-century evolution into full Southern icon status. Now it's time to talk about how, during the mid-20th century, boiled peanuts almost disappeared for good.

By World War I, the peanut had become an important agricultural commodity, and more and more farmers in the South started replacing cotton crops with peanuts. The great majority of those peanuts were shelled for confectioners, roasted to become a snack food, ground into peanut butter, or pressed into oil. But every August and September, when farmers harvested their peanuts and laid vines out in their fields to dry, they would set aside some bushels for the boiling pots. For a few brief weeks, Southerners of all ages—schoolchildren in the back of the classroom, bankers in their downtown offices, teens at evening socials—ate their fill of the soft, salty treat.

Few outside the peanut-growing regions of the South had ever heard of boiled peanuts, much less tasted them. And that made them all the more intriguing to Ed Koterba, the Washington columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service, when he noticed one of the items on the agenda for a 1959 House agriculture subcommittee meeting: "To discuss the definition of boiled peanuts." He tried to get into the session to learn more, but the subcommittee was meeting in a closed-door executive session. Koterba ended up writing about a caucus on surplus chickens instead.

But he had stumbled upon something more than just a language debate. A few Southern legislators, it turned out, had been working quietly behind the scenes for several years to maintain a legislative loophole to protect one of their constituents' favorite snack foods. The boiled peanut was in real danger of being regulated out of existence.

Propping up the Peanut

It all started with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, a Depression-era measure that restricted the supply of commodity crops—including wheat, corn, cotton, rice, and peanuts—in order to keep prices high. It parceled out allotments to farmers growing the covered commodities, defining how many acres they could plant. Farmers who planted within their allotted acreage were eligible for price supports: direct cash payments to cover the difference between a government-defined target price and what the market actually paid.

The program was voluntary and had minimal effect on boiled peanuts at first, since it used a gentle incentivizing carrot instead of a stick to encourage participation. A farmer whose primary crop was, say, cotton, could plant his allotted acreage and then, instead of just letting the rest of his land lay fallow, sow other cash crops like oats and spinach for which he had no allotment. His cotton would be protected by price supports, and though he might have to sell the other crops at mere market rate, that beat getting nothing out of fallow land. He could even plant a few acres of peanuts to boil and sell in the late summer.

All those side crops, though, raised supply and further depressed prices, so in 1955 Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson introduced "cross-compliance regulations." Farmers had to comply with federal planning quotas for all crops for which allotments were made in order to be eligible for price support payments on any of their crops.

All of a sudden, having a side crop of peanuts wasn't nearly as attractive, and when the next peanut harvest came around there were far fewer boiled peanuts being sold on street corners and at roadside stands. "Peanut farmers have found," Representative Billy Matthews of Florida later explained to the press, "that they can make more money growing peanuts for roasting, or for use in peanut candy, peanut butter, and peanut oil." It simply didn't make financial sense to devote their limited acreage to grow peanuts for boiling when there were higher profit margins to be found from other applications.

But Matthews and his fellow Southern legislators had come up with a fix. In 1957, they quietly passed a bill exempting from acreage allotments any peanuts that were marketed before drying, which effectively meant any peanuts that ended up getting boiled. But the exemption expired in two years, and in 1959, when legislators put in a measure to renew it, they caught the attention of a somewhat bemused D.C. press corp and had a little explaining to do.

"In some sections of the United States," Representative Harold D. Cooley of North Carolina told the Associated Press, "immature peanuts are boiled and eaten as a green vegetable similar to spinach." The 'green vegetable' bit may have been a bit disingenuous, since few Southern towns witnessed hordes of small boys selling paper sacks of boiled spinach on street-corners.

"It really affects the farm boys in the rural areas of the peanut belt," added Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia. "That's their way of picking up a little spending money to buy clothes to go to college."

The whole thing would likely have remained a humorous side-show—one of those "oh, that silly Congress" pieces that political reporters dutifully file whenever there's a slow news day on Capitol Hill—except for one thing. Boiled peanuts ended up getting dragged into the much more serious debate over civil rights.

The Keating Goober Rights Amendment

The same year that Agriculture Secretary Benson implemented cross-compliance regulations, Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus. In 1957, nine teenagers, jeered at by crowds and guarded by Federal troops, became the first African-American students to attend the formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The following year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four African-American girls.

On August 19th, 1959, Senator Kenneth Keating of New York took the Senate's version of the boiled peanut exemption bill and tacked on an amendment that contained the Eisenhower administration's entire civil rights program. It was meant to force a showdown on civil rights on the floor of the Senate, since Southern senators had bottled up all civil rights legislation in the Judiciary Committee. Keating picked the acreage allotment bill specifically because that it was "of great interest to the peanut growers in a number of states"—namely, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi, the very same states whose senators were obstructing all civil rights legislation.

Those Southern senators went ballistic. "The Senate will crush the 'Keating-Goober' rights amendments," promised Senator Olin D. Johnston of South Carolina, "and pass the peanut bill unblighted."

Though peanuts had been grown for boiling by both black and white farmers for decades, we can guess which constituency Southern legislators had been trying to protect with their quota exemption. (Hint: the one that hadn't been systematically denied the right to vote.) But that didn't keep Southern lawmakers from declaring their steadfast concern for the welfare of African-Americans in their districts.

Senator Johnston told the press, "Southern Negroes—whom Keating professes to champion—would be in the majority among those adversely affected should the bill die." Representative Billy Matthews of Florida explained that, "Many people in my area, particularly colored people, sell these boiled peanuts on the streets and at athletic contests and make a little money to supplement their regular income."

So, instead of the right, say, to use public accommodation and attend good schools, Southern legislators were giving African-American citizens peanuts. The topic was deadly serious, but the debate in Congress took on a jarringly lighthearted tone, focusing more on the virtues of boiled peanuts than the case for civil rights.

"There is no delicacy that compares with boiled peanuts," Senator Olin Johnston declared to the press, and added, "It's amazing how little is known about the peanut in Washington." He consulted the Library of Congress, which had a three hundred page book on peanuts, but not a single page mentioned anything about serving them boiled. The Senate chef had never seen a green peanut before, either.

So, Johnston arranged to have 50 pounds of boiled peanuts delivered to the Capitol and distributed liberally in the Senate restaurant. "Once they have consumed this delicacy," he promised, his fellow Senators "would be convinced of the significance of the boiled peanut, its tastiness and the importance of keeping it segregated from civil rights legislation."

It didn't work. The non-Southern senators who sampled "'the 'delicacy,'" the Omaha World Herald reported, "found that a raw peanut, boiled in its shell, assumed a damp, dark brown hue. When the soggy shells were removed, the nuts, so crisp and flavorful when roasted, were revealed as soft and tasteless. The Library of Congress assumed heightened stature in many eyes by its omission of any reference to this method of preparation."

Senator Keating, for his part, said he could take or leave boiled peanuts, and added that "certain gourmets have, in fact, come to me with a plea that I do everything in my power to remove the boiled peanut from the culinary scene."

In the end, Keating accomplished his initial goal of getting the civil rights measures discussed on the Senate floor, but he didn't have the votes to get his amendment approved. After a day-long filibuster, he withdrew the rider and by unanimous consent boiled peanuts were exempted from acreage allotments for another two years. Civil rights legislation would have to wait for another day.

Codifying Boiled Peanuts

1959 was the only year that the peanut quota legislation was explicitly linked to civil rights, but an indirect connection persisted, for as civil rights leaders escalated their protests and were met by increasing violence, boiled peanuts became linked in the press with the perceived triviality and inaction of Congress.

Every two years, when it came time to renew the boiled peanut quota exemption, journalists were both bemused and outraged by the measure all over again. In 1963, under the headline "It's Goober Time in Congress," Jerry Doolittle of the Los Angeles Times declared that Representative Matthews' bill 'produces a bumper crop of tomfoolery." When the measure moved to the floor for debate, one congressman demanded to know whether Matthews had brought samples, while another said for the record that he would vote for the measure only on the condition that he didn't have to taste any of the damned things.

"They always have a good time with my little peanut bill," Matthews said. "I don't mind, as long as they vote for it."

The 1963 debate prompted political humorist Art Buchwald to mock the trivialities of a do-nothing Congress. "With this [boiled peanut] bill out of the way," he concluded, "Congress is now free to discuss other vital subjects of interest to the nation such as whether seat belts should be required in automobiles, and whether the flying of kites should be allowed in Washington DC."

Sam Zegoia was more pointed. In a New York Times editorial entitled, "Make It a 'Do-Something' Congress," he lambasted the institution's lackadaisical pace and the seeming irrelevance. "A discussion of civil-rights disorders, the threat of a nationwide strike or the nuclear test ban treaty can be put on the shelf while a discussion of the future of the boiled peanut ensues," he fretted. "Instead Congress rattles on, debating boiled peanuts, kite flying in Washington and a potpourri of minor bills while the fire of civil rights burns on, the hunger for higher education gnaws, and time intensifies other needs."

Congress did get around to action on those other needs eventually. In 1964, after much political maneuvering and overcoming a 57-day filibuster from the Southern bloc, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2nd.

Congress finally took care of the boiled peanut, too. When the acreage exemption renewal time came around in 1965, the House agriculture committee decided to make the exemption permanent and incorporate it into the omnibus farm bill rather than debate it every two years. To this day, the following definition is enshrined in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 7, Subtitle B, Chapter XI, Part 1216, Subpart A, Section 1216.18: Peanuts means the seeds of the legume arachis hypogaea and includes both in-shell and shelled peanuts other than those marketed by the producer in green form for consumption as boiled peanuts."

Fans of boiled peanuts may wish that their beloved treat had never gotten tied up with such a serious issue as civil rights. Sometimes it's nice to just enjoy a tasty snack and not have to dwell on all the trouble and injustice in the world. But from their arrival on Southern shores as a provision on slave ships to a starring role in civil rights debates on the floor of Congress, boiled peanuts are inextricably entwined with the South's original sin. That's the thing about Southern food: as much as we may want to forget about the bitter legacy of the past, in the end we simply can't avoid it.