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Soup to (Boiled) Nuts: The Peanut’s Long Journey to South Carolina

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The history of peanuts in the United States in general, and in the Southern states specifically, is inseparably tied to the African diaspora; as is the case for many foods for which the Carolinas are now famous. Peanuts find their native footing in ancient South America, where their nutritious, substantive character seemed to be as highly regarded as it is today. Pottery decorated with the legume has been discovered by archaeologists, as has evidence of peanuts being used as an offering to the gods of the Incan peoples and entombed with Incan mummies, to aid in the deceased’s passage to the underworld. With an origin story so deeply-rooted in our own continent, you’d assume that the peanut made its way up into North American from our Southern neighbors, but you’d be wrong. 

Taking the circuitous route delineated by the African slave trade, tlalcacahuatl (the ancient Mexican name for the peanut) would ride first in the hulls of Spanish conquistadors as they took the curious groundnut from pillaged South American communities back to their European homeland. From Europe, peanuts would find their way to the African continent and there quickly became a staple food. The peanut resembled a groundnut already present in the continent’s cuisine, but proved easier to maintain and more nutritious. The most famous peanut dish of Western and Central Africa is undoubtedly peanut stew or peanut soup, likely originating from the ethnic groups of present-day Mali. Today, the dish sees countless variations throughout the African continent, and recipes are widely available online. Home chefs working their way through Google results for “peanut stew”, will notice that it’s often paired with another food that would find its way to South Carolina from West Africa – rice. Both staples would travel to the South Carolina coast on slave ships alongside human captives, and both would become central to the southern American culinary landscape, cultivated and cooked by generations of Black southerners, descended from those original enslaved captives.

Through much of its early life in the southern United States, enslaved African Americans exclusively seemed to recognize the peanut’s value as a foodstuff. Peanut plants were cultivated in the private growing plots of enslaved folk living on plantations, but not in the kitchen gardens of white plantation owners, which were also tended by the enslaved. It may be around this time that South Carolina’s most famous peanut preparation begins to appear on dining tables in Black households. Peanuts are harvested in a relatively brief window, over a period of six weeks between August and October. After harvest, peanuts can be air-dried for eating dry or as a preparation for future processing, or they can be left “green” –  full of moisture and prone to spoilage if not used within a few days. If boiled in salt water, green peanuts transform into a briny, almost creamy treat – even more nutritious than its dried preparation and practically addictive. 

By the Civil War, dry peanuts were being enjoyed by white Southerners as well, the wide fondness for them immortalized in a folk song called “Eatin’ Goober Peas”,  sung often by Confederate soldiers as they marched and relaxed in camp between battles. Boiled peanuts, however, remained a snack enjoyed primarily by Black Carolinians until the early 20th century. Throughout the war-ravaged south, peanuts gained visibility as a crop immune to threats like the boll weevil that famously plagued cotton monoculture. Famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver helped to spread the gospel of the peanut to struggling farmers through the post-war South, promoting the plants’ ability to put valuable nutrients back into depleted soil, and the versatility of a crop that could be used as livestock feed or pressed for oil. The tradition of setting aside a portion of the green peanut harvest for boiling became en vogue as more white farmers throughout the South began to cultivate peanuts, and as white homemakers began to recognize the salty, hands-on snack as a perfect party food. 

Today, peanuts are most often eaten by Americans in its popular peanut butter format, but boiled peanuts remain ubiquitous throughout the Carolinas. Even as a native North Carolinian, I wasn’t aware that boiled peanuts were a south-specific food until I was well into adulthood. They were a common roadside stop as my family drove from North to South Carolina for our summer beach trip every year, and my mom (who hates peanuts in any other form) will still nearly wreck the car to pull over to any boiled peanut stand she runs across. In 2006, boiled peanuts were named the official State Snack of South Carolina. They’re sold widely across the state at baseball games, gas stations, grocery stores, roadside stands, and even in the dining rooms of some of our favorite restaurants around Charleston! So if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying a boiled peanut, or if you’re a lifelong devotee, hop on our Downtown Charleston Culinary Tour and sample one of South Carolina’s most iconic snacks.