Peanuts have been a principal ingredient in Southern cooking since colonial times, with roots (forgive the pun) tracing back to the first enslaved Africans, who brought the peanuts to the U.S. from West Africa. The nut, actually a legume, evolved from the African ground nut or goober pea—the early name came from the Angolan word nguba. Enslaved workers grew their goober peas in small plots their masters allowed them for personal use, and used the nuts for flour, oil, or eating plain. When plantation owners saw how value the crop could be, production spread rapidly, especially in the coastal Carolinas and Georgia, where the peanuts grew prolifically in the sandy soil.
by Caroline Lange
by Alice Medrich
Peanuts play a key role in the broader American diet as the base for our beloved peanut butter, but Southerners have used peanuts for so much more. For hundreds of years, it’s been a base for cakes, stews, and basic healthy snacks. In the coastal Carolinas, the boiled peanut reigns supreme. It’s one of the first things we seek out when we come home and what we beg friends to mail us when we’re away too long.
Driving through eastern North Carolina, roadside stands sell boiled peanuts on any given route to the beach. They are best enjoyed when you can sit back and enjoy a nice long visit with old friends—cracking open the shells and slurping up the juicy nuggets inside. And, if there are leftovers, shell and puree them into a divine peanut hummus. (Peanut butter is made from roasted ground peanuts.)
Boiled peanuts are not the prettiest treat. But once nervous newcomers try a salty handful, they become lifelong members of the boiled peanut club. But a long drive to Wrightsville Beach isn’t the only way to get a paper bagful—they are incredibly easy to make at home.
I like to use Valencia peanuts or heirloom African Runner Peanuts because they have a higher oil content and richer flavor, but you can use any Virginia-style peanut. Boiled peanuts can be made with either fresh or dried peanuts—fresh peanuts cook quickly, but dried ones take much longer. Fresh peanuts usually have to be bought directly from a farmer because they need to be boiled within a day or two of harvesting to prevent mold, but dried peanuts can be bought from most grocery stores or online from Bertie County Peanuts.
Whatever you do, do not use roasted peanuts, as you will end up with a soggy mess. Crack a shell open and taste as you go along and cook until the peanuts are as tender as you want them. I cook mine to the same consistency I cook my black beans, soft but with enough firmness that you still need to chew them. Make a big pot—these are addicting.
Salty Southern Boiled Peanuts
By Jamie DeMent
pounds fresh raw “green” peanuts, in shell
cup kosher salt
garlic cloves, crushed
tablespoon crushed red pepper