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The Real History of Boiled Peanuts
“It’s boiled peanut time again, the season in which hundreds of unsuspecting Yankees are taken by surprise by the soggy Dixie delicacy.” In September of 1946, an AP article datelined Tallahassee poked fun at Northern visitors caught off guard when eating boiled peanuts for the first time. Despite being relatively unheard of in the Northern States, where “roasted” or “buttered” is the only way to prepare a peanut, boiled peanuts have a long history in the South. But even fans of this salty treat might be surprised to learn the truth of that history.
Boiled Peanuts on Every Corner
A popular tale insists that boiled peanuts became a Southern staple during the Civil War, when Confederate soldiers were forced to eat peanuts after Union General William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia cut off supply lines. However, the reality is that peanut oil was used as a substitute for whale oil during the Civil War, which meant eating peanuts was a luxury that soldiers couldn’t afford. Even if Confederate soldiers did get their hands on “goober peas” as peanuts were often called, they probably weren’t boiling them yet. Much like okra and black-eyed peas, boiled peanuts’ popularity started with black Southerners.
Peanuts were brought to North America by enslaved West Africans during the colonial era. Up until the Revolutionary War, peanuts were cultivated mostly by African Americans and often used in soups and stews, common dishes in West Africa. A century later, the South experienced a peanut boom after the Civil War as farmers looked for alternatives to cotton monoculture. By the 20th century, white farmers learned from their African American neighbors that fresh green peanuts could be boiled into a tasty treat.
Recipes for boiled peanuts began appearing in the society pages of South Carolina newspapers and quickly spread across the South. Soon, boiled peanuts were sold on every street corner, the treat becoming as popular as ginger cake and root beer. Since boiled peanuts are made from fresh green peanuts, boiled peanuts were originally only available during the summer months during the peanut harvest. Fortunately, today boiled peanuts are available year-round, and have cemented themselves as an iconic Southern delicacy.