I didn’t think my world would change much when I moved to the South. I grew up in New England — my Dad is of Swedish/Jewish derivation (20th century immigrants) and my mom is French-Canadian. So you can’t exactly call me a Yankee.
Anyway, this story starts in 2003. I’d gone to college in Baltimore for three years, and after spending one last summer in Massachusetts to help care for my dad while he was recovering from open-heart surgery, I made the jump and moved with my then-boyfriend/now-husband Michael to Greensboro, NC.
And I certainly never anticipated food would be a challenge. I love food. Food is amazing. It’s the universal language. Southern Food was always spoken of in such revered tones. Surely, I’d never have trouble acclimating, right?
Much of Michael’s family still lives in Atlanta, so trips even deeper South were pretty routine early in our marriage. I underestimated just how long the trip would be (states down here are so much more expansive than in New England) when Michael spoke of it, and while we lumbered along in his old Chrysler LeBaron I took to looking at the signboards every few feet or so.
That’s one of the things I had noticed as a Yankee in the South. Road trips are just neverending entertainment. Southerners sure love their road advertisements. And vanity license plates. And driving faster than the speed limit. Where I’d grown up, even a few miles over the speed limit was grounds for a ticket if you hit it wrong. But speed limits in the South still seem more like guidelines than actual laws.
Signboards in the South are an art form. And often a method of protest. Or persecution. And very often, religious emblazonment (often directly juxtaposed to strip club advertisements). Even fifteen years ago you could find signboards with 3-D elements, like cows (Chick-Fil-A, which is pronounced like a Chicken Fillet, and not “Fill-ah” like I pronounced it in my head) and people and car dealership advertisements with working headlamps. One, near Wilmington, featuring a statue of a person sitting on top of a billboard, even elicited multiple 911 calls.
Which is the long way of saying that during one of my first trips to Georgia I encountered a signboard that said: “Boiled P-nuts, 5 mi. Ahead!”
Upon seeing this, I immediately burst into laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Michael asked me.
“Boiled peanuts!” I cackled. Really, it was the funniest thing I’d seen on the road during the long, six hour trek through South Carolina, which as far as I could tell was one big sand trap with a huge peach on I-85 that looked like a bit orange butt.
“And?” Michael asked.
“Boiled peanuts!” I replied. Certainly he had to understand the hilarity of the signboard. Who the hell would boil peanuts? “Must be some weird joke.”
“It’s not a joke. What’s wrong with boiled peanuts?” Michael asked me.
“What’s wrong with them?” I asked. “They’re not real! Who boils peanuts?”
“Everyone,” said Michael. “Down here we eat them all the time.” I could tell he thought I was clearly insane.
The strain of the Civil War song “Goober Peas” started running through my head. Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas.
“Seriously?” I asked. “That’s absolutely gross.”
“No, they’re really good. We’ll get some,” he said. His tone was one of teaching, slightly pedantic, and knowing.
I wasn’t anticipating that they’d taste good. Especially since they came out of a cauldron and were tossed unceremoniously into a cloudy Ziploc bag — still hot, mind you — and then thrust in our direction by a man older than Methuselah. Still, when I made a face and shuddered at the slippery, grainy yet mushy texture, Michael shrugged me off.
“Well, these aren’t very good ones,” he said, continuing to eat them as if it all didn’t matter. “We’ll get better ones next time.”
I couldn’t imagine any combination of these ingredients — salt, more salt, water, and peanuts, cooked in their shells until they resembled little slugs nestled in termite-chewed wood splinters—could be “good ones”. Ever.
Thankfully I was wrong. It took a good five years, but eventually I did try some that were good. Made by Michael’s father, in his backyard, over a burner. The result wasn’t as salty or nearly as slimy. They retained much of their peanut flavor, with a little bit of lentil kind of taste that I found rather delicious.
I don’t think my parents will ever eat boiled peanuts. But my kids will. Boiled peanuts are, as polite Northerners say when introduced to such foods, a rather acquired taste. It’s probably best that, if you try boiled peanuts, you get them from someone you know. And please, please, not from a can. Like so many of the dishes I grew up with from my Québecois family, boiled peanuts are food of harsh times and little money. Since peanuts grow so plentifully, especially in Georgia, they’re not hard to find. And one can only, presumably, eat so much peanut butter. Even though George Washington Carver figured out hundreds of ways to use peanuts, boiled is the way to go for roadside fare.
But it’s not inherently gross. Michael was right. Good boiled peanuts are kind of amazing, especially if you stop thinking of them as nuts and start thinking of them as legumes. I even recently had some cajun style boiled peanuts that were made with a vinegar base, and they were mind-blowing. Apparently, Instant Pots have created a bit of a boiled peanut renaissance.
The recipe for boiled peanuts likely came from slaves during the 19th century and before, like so much of the Southern cuisine I’ve come to know and love. But it’s a hard point of entry. In spite of my rather intriguing Québecois food upbringing, much of Southern cuisine felt absolutely alient to me in those first years in the South. And in almost every circumstance, I’ve had to rethink my expectations of what food tastes like, and what ingredients are supposed to be like.
Once I get over that initial revulsion—yes, sometimes it’s revulsion—I can step back and break it down. Then I understand. Then I try it again. Then I realize what it means, how it brings people together, and how important it is to keep the recipes alive.
That said, I still hate milk gravy. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Like my favorite stuffed cabbage, boiled peanuts are a dish eaten around the world. From Africa to Asia and back again. And it’s part of the heritage of American cuisine that reminds us how indebted we are to our past, no matter how problematic or difficult to understand. It’s worth talking about, worth eating, and worth sharing.
Top Photo CC BY-SA 2.0 by Charles Haynes