Road trips through the South just aren’t complete without pulling over to a roadside stand to pick up a supply of boiled peanuts (or boil p-nuts, as many signs read). While people raised on crunchy peanuts may find their boiled cousins to be an acquired taste, Southerners know that they are truly a delicacy.
If you haven’t come across the damp legume before, boiled peanuts are freshly harvested or “green” nuts that are boiled in their shells in salty water for hours. The shells turn soft and the flavor ends up somewhere completely different from what you would find in a PB&J. They are toothsome and fun to eat and the ideal accompaniment to an ice-cold Coca Cola or glass of sweet tea. While boiled peanuts have been a Southern staple for generations, have you ever stopped to wonder who first came up with the idea of dropping a perfectly good peanut in boiling water? The answer is a bit complicated.
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Peanuts are originally from South America, but scientists are pretty sure the plants took the long way ‘round, coming to the South from Africa. The Portuguese took the peanut plant to Africa around 1500 and peanuts quickly became a culinary staple. The legumes eventually made their way to the South on board slave ships, which were stocked with peanuts for the long voyage. They were primarily grown and consumed by African American families, according to Serious Eats, like okra and black-eyed peas before them, peanuts eventually made their way to the dining room tables of white families, too. For instance, the first peanut recipe to be included in a Southern cookbook was a recipe for ground-nut soup—a staple in the diets in many African nations—which was featured in Sarah Rutledge’s 1847 Carolina Housewife, according to Andrew F. Smith's Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea.
It was around the Civil War that peanuts became a more common snack, partially because people were hungry and peanuts were available. According to Smith’s research, during the war, Southerners started using peanuts for everything from oiling the machinery to acting as a coffee substitute and as a snack. While some historians claimed Confederate troops boiled peanuts to carry in their pack, as the Charleston City Paper notes, “like most tales of foods being "invented" during wartime, this one is not true.” African-Americans—and Africans before them—had been boiling peanuts for a long time before the Civil War. In fact, one of the earliest hen a Union soldier escaped from a prison camp in Columbia, freed men gave him provisions for the trip, including boiled peanuts, according to Serious Eats. Boiled peanuts didn’t become a Southern icon until the turn of the 20th century. That was when boiled peanuts started to be featured in South Carolina newspapers as the snack of choice among Southern society. Boiled peanuts were quite the fashionable thing to serve at weddings and parties in the early 1900s, especially among weddings held in August and September, when fresh green peanuts had just been harvested.
The practice of boiling peanuts soon spread from South Carolina across Virginia, Georgia, and Florida. By the 1920s, boiled peanuts were popular across the peanut-growing swath of the South where farmers had easy access to the green nuts to throw in the pot.