Why Boiled Peanuts are the Simple Snack Southerners Love
From sandy shores to ballparks, boiled peanuts are the ultimate Southern treat.
As strange as boiled peanuts may sound to anyone living outside the South, raw (unroasted) peanuts boiled in a seasoned brine have been enjoyed for centuries throughout Asia, South America, and Africa. And while the peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea, native to South America) was brought to North American shores during the transatlantic slave trade, research shows that boiled peanuts in the Eastern United States have been primarily a delicacy of African-American foodways that crossed over into other cultures of the South in the early part of the 20th century. Nowadays, they inspire an intense cultural loyalty across lines of class and race.
We grew up in the 1980s in Charleston, South Carolina, and loved them so much that when we moved away to colleges in Massachusetts, we started a mail-order business selling them and other pantry staples that we missed from home. We called it The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, and it's still going strong.
In the South, this snack is associated with leisure time outdoors and can be purchased by the side of the road from vendors set up in vacant lots and sandy strips on the way to the beach, the ballpark, or the fairgrounds. They're prepared in homes as well but rarely in restaurant settings. (However, that seems to be changing; they can be found at The Glass Onion in Charleston and are even served with Cajun spices and country ham broth out West at JuneBaby in Seattle, Washington.)
WATCH: Georgia-Style Slow Cooker Boiled Peanuts
Our grandmother's landlady, Elizabeth Jenkins Young, once remarked to us that the smell of our recipe boiling on Gran's stove reminded her of a "sweet potato gone sour." Not that she didn't like them: She proudly displayed her "I BRAKE FOR BOILED PEANUTS" bumper sticker in the back window of her blue Volkswagen Rabbit. But the earthy quality of the nut (which grows underground and is full of protein and minerals) and the sweetness of it do in fact suggest the heartiness—and the roots—of a sweet potato.
To the uninitiated, wet peanuts may present several obstacles to their enjoyment. Not everyone goes for their unique beany flavor—a world of difference from the roasted kind—or the wetness as you pick them apart. But we believe they are divine.
Know Your Nuts
Raw peanuts have been air-dried to reduce their moisture content, making them shelf-stable and available year-round. Green peanuts are freshly dug from the field and should be used within a few days of their harvest.
The Proper Way To Shell a Peanut
It's easier than it sounds. Using both hands, pinch the seam of the shell between your thumbs and forefingers until the top shell gives way, and then pry it off. You can lower your mouth to the peanuts and tease them out using your teeth or pick them out of the shell with your fingers. Slurping the brine left in the bottom shell (like you would oyster liquor) will earn you extra credit among aficionados.