The Real Origins of the Boiled Peanut

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Summer heat means it's time to haul out the big pot to boil some peanuts. Yes, boiled peanuts have a season, though boiled peanuts have become such an iconic, year-round Southern food, most wouldn't know.

They're so iconic, in fact, that they've acquired the power to ascribe a shorthand Southernness to almost anything they touch. Just as countless airport concessionaires transform any run-of-the-mill fast food—burritos, pizza, ham-n-cheese sandwiches—into a breakfast item by simply adding scrambled eggs, chefs have figured out that you can Southernize any fine-dining dish by tossing in a handful of boiled peanuts. Combine them with another Southern ingredient or two, and the effect is even better.

In February 2013, when Daniel Doyle of Charleston's Poogan's Porch was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York, his sous-vide duck salad included a decidedly Southern mashup: bourbon-boiled peanuts. For an episode of PBS's A Chef's Life, Vivian Howard hit a trifecta with Pepsi-glazed pork belly and country-ham-braised peanuts. Countless other chefs have concocted similar dishes, and once-novel fusions like boiled peanut hummus or boiled peanut falafel have become commonplace.

Yet no one seems to have much to say about how Southerners started boiling the things.

Unlike fried green tomatoes or pimento cheese, though, boiled peanuts have been a Southern staple for a very long time—all the way back to the colonial era. In other parts of the country, millions of people snack on roasted peanuts and spread peanut butter on their sandwiches. But after all these years, for some reason, boiled peanuts remain almost exclusively a Southern thing.

The history of the peanut is a well-plowed field. There's even a full-length text: Andrew F. Smith's Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, which covers everything from the plant's origins in South America to its starring role in the "peanut galleries" of urban theaters and the lunchboxes of American schoolchildren. But he devotes only a single page to the practice of boiling peanuts, and that page is shared with a discussion of eating raw peanuts. Most accounts make vague assertions that boiled peanuts originated during the Civil War as cheap necessity grub before darting off quickly to discuss how they're cooked today.

Perhaps they should dig a little deeper. If they did, they'd realize the history of the boiled peanut isn't about some convenient cheap food. Rather, boiled peanuts spanned the whole range of Southern society, from the West African slaves who actually invented the dish to the white cooks who then ran with the idea as party food.

Ditching the Myths

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Once you start looking seriously into the matter, it becomes clear that the peanut encapsulates not one but three of the most pernicious myths that are rampant in popular histories of Southern food:

  • Just about every Southern food was created or popularized during the Civil War, typically out of necessity and deprivation.
  • Everything Southern began as an elevation of low, common ingredients.
  • Nothing exists until white people discover it.

A capsule history at the website for the Columbia, South Carolina Convention and Visitors Board sums up the typical line: "It is said that during times of war when soldiers were in need of nutrition with high protein and without cooking facilities, they boiled peanuts over campfires. They discovered that these peanuts would not spoil for several days."

The What's Cooking America page on the history of boiled peanuts, an oft-cited source in skimpily researched articles, places it squarely in the Civil War, too. "No one knows just why southerners started boiling peanuts or who was first to boil them," the explanation begins. "However, it is believed that boiled peanuts have been a southern institution since at least the Civil War (1861 to 1865), when Union General William T. Sherman (1820 to 1891) led his troops on their march through Georgia."

Sherman's march, the story goes, cut off Confederate supply lines, so soldiers turned to peanuts, "an important nutritional source. Since cooking facilities were scarce, soldiers roasted the peanuts over campfires or boiled them."

Some accounts do note in passing that peanuts were brought to the South by African slaves, but apparently the plants just lingered around somewhere until some resourceful Confederates (i.e. white guys) figured out what to do with them.

Such Civil War tales, as best as I can tell, have it pretty much completely backwards. Boiled peanuts, like so many other iconic Southern foods, begin with black Southerners, not whites.

Boiled Peanuts' African Roots

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We may not know the names of the first people to boil peanuts in the South, but we certainly know they weren't Confederate soldiers. Like okra, black-eyed peas, and so many other Southern staples, the peanut came to the region by way of the African diaspora, and for this reason piecing together its history can be challenging.

Since enslaved West Africans and their American-born descendants made up over half the population of some Southern colonies, the peanut became a dietary staple in areas such as South Carolina. But only a few glimpses of African food was captured in written sources, since before the Civil War, the writers of such histories were almost always white. The challenge is confounded by the fact that Americans didn't settle firmly on the term "peanuts" until the late 19th century. Before then, they were referred to by various names including ground nuts, ground peas, pindars, and goobers, a term derived from the Angolan word nguba.

Peanuts arrived on Southern shores via a circuitous route. 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. The legume (peanuts are peas that look like nuts, not the other way around) spread quickly across Africa, for it was very similar to the indigenous groundnut—an African staple—but with a higher oil content, and it was easier to cultivate.

The legumes made their way to the British Colonies in the South and the Caribbean on slave ships, which were frequently provisioned with peanuts for the deadly Middle Passage. By 1754, Gardner's Dictionary noted that "all the settlements in America abound with it; but many persons who reside in that Country affirm, they were originally brought by the Slaves from Africa there."

In 1769, a white planter named George Brownrigg from Edenton, North Carolina sent a sample of peanuts to his brother in London, who was a member of the Royal Society. "They are originally...of the growth of Africa," one of the Society members recorded, "and brought from thence by the negroes, who use them as food, both raw and roasted, and are very fond of them. They are therefore cultivated by them in the little parcels of land set apart for their use by their masters."

Up until the American Revolution, peanuts were cultivated primarily by African Americans in their own garden patches for their own families' use. "They are very nourishing," wrote Edward Long in his History of Jamaica (1774), "and...may be eaten raw, roasted, or boiled." They were undoubtedly incorporated into soup and stews, too—common usage in West Africa—though I've been unable to find any descriptions of such dishes in the South during the Colonial Era.

At some point the peanut made its way into the diet of the European minority, too. As early as 1769, George Brownrigg and other planters were raising peanuts to feed to livestock and were experimenting with pressing the oil from them, which, the Royal Society correspondent noted, is "clear, lasts a long time, may be obtained at low price—could be a substitute for expensive imported olive oil." Henry Bartham in 1794 noted, "I have often eat of them plentifully, and with pleasure."

But peanuts were more than just a snack food. In 1849, physician and author Francis Peyre Porcher noted that, "The ground-nut is cultivated to some extent in South Carolina, and great use is made of it on the plantations as an article of food."

By this point, traditional West African preparations had made their way onto the dining room tables of white elites, too. "The ground-nut and bené [sesame] make rich and nutritious soup, and act as substitutes for meat," Porcher wrote. "They are often parched, and beaten up with sugar, and served as a condiment or dessert." Sarah Rutledge's Carolina Housewife (1847) includes a very African-sounding "Ground-Nut Soup" that consists of beaten peanuts simmered with a pint of oysters and "a seed-pepper or two."

Eatin' Goober Peas

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By the time the Civil War arrived, then, Southerners—including white Southerners—had been eating peanuts for quite a long time, and it does seem that Confederate troops ate their fair share of peanuts during the war. What is puzzling is why so many pop histories insist they did so out of necessity because they couldn't get their hands on more preferred foods.

Along with chicory and okra, peanuts were frequently discussed in wartime papers and journals as a substitute for coffee. With the blockades cutting off imports, Southerners also turned to peanut oil as a substitute for whale oil. "During the war just closed," the North Carolina Advertiser noted in October 1865, "this oil was used universally in our machine shops."

When it comes to peanuts meant for eating, though, they were, if anything, a luxury that soldiers greatly missed, not a wartime necessity. The legume, the Jackson Clarion of Mississippi reported in 1866, "was much sought for during the war by the soldiers from that region, called 'goober-grabblers.' Indeed they never fought better than with a goober patch in their rear; then they felt at home."

That same sentiment is captured in the (somewhat) famous Civil War diddy, "Goober Peas," which was apparently a favorite among Confederate troops and was printed as sheet music in New Orleans in 1866 (The words and music are attributed A. Pindar and P. Nutt, respectively, who may or may not have been the Gilbert and Sullivan of their generation.)

If its catchy refrain alone isn't sufficiently celebratory ("Peas! peas! peas! peas! eating goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!"), the song's last verse clearly depicts a beloved peacetime treat, not a wartime substitution:

I wish this war was over when free from rags and fleas, We'd kiss our wives and sweethearts and gobble goober peas!

So it seems soldiers were eating peanuts not out of desperation, but because they really liked the things.

That said, it's very unlikely that when the troops got their hands on some peanuts that they would have ended boiling them in a pot. Peanuts grow on low, green vines, and they are quite unusual in that, after pollination, their flower stalks actually bend and burrow into the earth, where the fruit develops underground into the pods we know as peanuts. In the old days, farmers harvested them with pitchforks, turning the roots out of the ground and shaking away the dirt from the peanut pods. (Today they use motorized "digger-shaker-converter" equipment that scoops, shakes, and flips the vines.)

So-called fresh "green" peanuts are highly perishable due to their high moisture content, and they will go bad if not cooked or air-dried within a few days of coming out of the ground. Before the days of mechanical processing, the vines were stacked in rows in the fields and allowed to cure for two weeks until the pods were dry enough to be picked off. Only then were the raw peanuts ready for transport or roasting.

African Americans, though, had long had a proven way to prepare fresh green peanuts. W. H. Shelton, a captured Union soldier who escaped from a Columbia, South Carolina, prison camp in 1864, made his way eastward toward Charleston and along the way was given food by some of the African American freedmen he encountered. On multiple occasions he was provided with "boiled peanuts, which was a favorite way of cooking when the bean was too green to bake."

Boiled peanuts, in other words, were a seasonal preparation available only during the peanut harvest, which usually runs for about six weeks between August and October. As best as I can tell, long after roasted peanuts were being enjoyed all over America, the only people boiling them were black Southerners. And proper boiled peanuts really couldn't be anything but a Southern treat, since once you get past Virginia there wouldn't be fresh green peanuts to use. And, while plenty of white Southerners were growing peanuts by the time of the Civil War, they left no records of boiling them.

The Boiled Peanut Boom

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In the years just after the Civil War, the South shipped more and more peanuts north, as urban demand for nickel bags of roasted peanuts boomed. "There is hardly an article of American production," Scientific American observed in 1871, "that has grown so rapidly in importance as the peanut." Before 1860, total U.S. peanut production was around 150,000 bushels, most of which came from North Carolina. By 1870, more than a half million bushels were grown, over 300,000 of which came from the rising peanut center surrounding Norfolk, Virginia, and virtually all of them were roasted for snacks or pressed for oil.

The practice of boiling peanuts didn't cross over to white cooks for several generations. Then all of a sudden, just after the turn of the 20th century, boiled peanuts began popping up on the society pages of South Carolina newspapers. They were being served at entertainments and socials in the late summer and early fall, often alongside other classic treats like ice cream or watermelon.

The fare at an October 1906 corn-shucking event in Marion, North Carolina, for instance, included ginger cake, root beer, Coca-Cola, and boiled peanuts. In September of the following year, at a young people's "social party" in Sumter, "apples, candy, and boiled peanuts were the refreshments."

Boiled peanuts became the fashionable thing to serve at weddings and parties, but not in the larger cities like Charleston and Columbia. Instead, they bloomed in smaller towns dotting the countryside—St. Matthews, Olanta, Lynchburg, and Cameron—and always in the months of August through October, when fresh green peanuts had just been harvested.

The practice of boiling peanuts soon spread from South Carolina into the peanut-growing regions of Georgia and Florida. By 1911 they were being served in Ocilla in south Georgia, where Miss Lee Hogan "entertained a merry party" on the outskirts of town and "a delightful time was spent chewing [sugar] cane, eating boiled peanuts, and playing games." By 1917, boiled peanuts started appearing regularly in descriptions of parties on the society pages of the Tampa newspapers and in Alabama papers by the early 1920s.

The reason for the sudden surge in popularity isn't clear, but here's my best guess: Thanks to soil exhaustion and the devastation caused by the boll weevil, by the early 20th century Southern farmers were looking for alternatives to cotton monoculture. It was around this time that George Washington Carver began imploring Alabama farmers to grow less cotton and more peanuts. As David Shields chronicles in his recent book Southern Provisions (1915), by World War I, dozens of cottonseed oil mills across the South had been converted to press peanuts.

My theory is that as more and more white farmers started planting peanuts, they began to realize not only that boiled peanuts were tasty, but that the whole process of boiling and eating them could be quite festive. Boiling peanuts requires a large pot and lots of fingers for shelling, so it lends itself naturally to social gatherings.

Where did the gatherers learn how to boil them? Likely from their African American neighbors. Across the lower part of South Carolina, each community had its top peanut cooker. In Barnwell during the 1930s, George James, an African American farmer, was recognized as the "king of the boilers." James, the Augusta Chronicle noted in 1939, had mastered "the art of boiling properly with just enough salt in the water to add that unexplainable twang which makes every peanut something to linger over and enjoy."

Curiously, America's largest peanut-growing state—Virginia—remained oblivious to the virtues of the boiled peanut. In August 1917, a commentator for the Richmond Times Dispatch recalled that when he mentioned boiled peanuts at a meeting of peanut growers in Suffolk—one of Virginia's main peanut-processing cities—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, boiled peanuts were so popular that they started getting noticed by bemused Yankees. In September of 1925, at the height of green peanut season, a Universal wire service report datelined Orangeburg, South Carolina, profiled "peanut boilings," which it surmised its readers had never heard of "unless you have visited the 'goober' sections of the Carolinas."

"As soon as peanuts begin to ripen," the article continued, "and before they are dried, washpots are filled with peanuts and salt water, fires are lit, and when the guests arrive the delicacy is boiling merrily. The boiled peanuts are ladled hot from the pot and served to the merrymakers."

For a few short weeks each summer, in towns throughout the lower South, armies of small boys hit the streets, hawking bags of boiled peanuts. In 1921, the Index-Journal of Greenwood, South Carolina, declared, the town was experiencing an "epidemic" of boiled peanuts. "The small venders are everywhere," the correspondent wrote, "in the elevators, the barber shops, lobbies of office buildings. And almost everyone buys for they are usually fresh boiled and boiled peanuts are a popular tid bit, even more so than parched peanuts."

Enshrining a Southern Icon

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By World War II, the boiled peanut had arrived as a full-on Southern icon, fulfilling the key criteria of being completely foreign to Northerners' palates. "It's boiled peanut time again," an AP article datelined Tallahassee declared on September 1st, 1946, "the season in which hundreds of unsuspecting Yankees are taken by surprise by the soggy Dixie delicacy."

Visitors to the South would buy a sack thinking they were "the regular parched variety." Once they discovered that the hulls are damp hulls and the nuts inside are soft, pulpy, the would "turn to the nearest Southerner for an explanation."

Food origin mythology is ripe with tales of soldiers being sent to faraway places, getting a taste for a local delicacy, and then taking it back home with them. Not so the boiled peanut. 1945 saw a bumper crop, so a greater volume of fresh boiled peanuts were on the market in Moultrie, Georgia, than ever before. The town was enjoying a wartime boom thanks to the troops stationed nearby, but the young boys selling boiled peanuts didn't profit from it. "Peanuts prepared in this manner," the Macon Telegraph reported, "appeal only to South Georgians. Soldiers at Spence Field say they can't stand them." They preferred their peanuts roasted.

Those sentiments seem to largely hold today. For those accustomed only to roasted peanuts, eating them boiled can be, I will admit, quite a shock to the system. For starters, they're not crunchy, but soft, perhaps even downright mushy. And—if they're made right, at least—they're really salty, and not just on the outside like roasted peanuts, but steeped in salinity all the way through. Roasted peanuts play up the legume's nutty characteristics, but boiled peanuts bring forward their essential pea-ness—which is why you see chefs using them in place of ingredients like chickpeas, and not almonds or walnuts.

But the story of the boiled peanut doesn't stop there. In the years following World War II, they became embroiled in bitter political controversy and, were it not for a lot of legislative wrangling, the boiled peanut may not have survived to see the 21st century. We'll pick up with that story next week.