The Origins of the Boiled Peanut: A Parable

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Recently, I encountered this hilarious video about Californians trying South Carolina foods for the first time, and I was reminded of A) my intense dislike for boiled peanuts, and B) a story I have long told friends regarding my suspicions about the origins of the boiled peanut. And now, by popular demand, I pass that story along to you.

It’s 1894, and a poor Sandhills farmer is on his way in to market in Columbia along the Camden Road, hauling a large load of peanut sacks stacked high in his uncovered wagon. As he starts up the hill just after Messer’s Pond, the heavily rutted sand road jolts his wagon, and his single horse rears a bit, causing the top most bag to fall off the back of his load, roll down the embankment, and settle into the water at the edge of the pond.

Once he has his horse under control, the farmer continues to market none the wiser, then realizes he is a bag short when he goes to settle up with the Yankee buyer who runs the place. Convinced of the farmer’s dishonor in spite of the farmer’s apologies, the Yankee in turn loudly berates him in front of the other farmers as a cheat, then cuts his price for the peanuts by 25%.

Embarrassed, the Sandhills farmer returns home that night, puzzled as to how he could have made such a mistake. He considers that someone might have stolen a bag at the market, but quickly dismisses this idea as unlikely. He considers that his wife may have distracted him while loading the cart, thus disrupting his count, but he remembers completing his recount just before heading out. Flummoxed, the farmer goes on with his activities for the week until it is time to go to market again.

A week later, as he again travels the rutted Camden Road and approaches Messer’s Pond, he sees the glint of wet peanut shells sparkling at the edge of the water and stops his cart. It’s brutally hot–104 on this particular day–and the cart is again loaded to its limits. As he draws closer to the gleaming peanuts, he realizes that this is his lost bag, which has been simmering in the summer sun and pond water for seven days. He hauls the bag up onto the bench next to him, scoops as many loose, soggy peanuts as he can back into the bag, sews up the bag, and proceeds to market.

When he arrives this time, he seeks out the Yankee buyer, apologizes again for the misunderstanding the previous week, then offers the bag of hot, pond-soaked peanuts as a gift. “I brought this to make amends,” he says. “It is a delicacy among the Sandhillers. The truth is that we keep our best peanuts for ourselves, simmering them for days until they are a hot mess, then tide ourselves over with the results, shell and all, when the only thing else we have to eat is dirt. The boiling brings out the flavor, and the shell is loaded with vitamins and protein. It’s second only to peanuts in a bottle of Coca Cola, but we can’t usually afford Coca Cola.”

The suspicious Yankee wavers. “I’m not paying you for these,” he says. “They’re wet and slimy.”

“Bless your heart,” the Sandhills farmer says. “I’m not asking you to buy them. It’s my gift to you for your generosity in reconsidering my honor. It is the only amends I know to make under the circumstances–a true southern delicacy that only a refined man of discerning tastes such as yourself could truly appreciate.” That’s when the Yankee buyer asked the Sandhills farmer to bring him more the next week, for which he would gladly pay, in order to share them with his northern friends.

That is how the boiled peanut was born. And so, to this day, Yankees visit and move to South Carolina in record numbers, buying up roadside bags of “boiled peanuts” as part of their Radical Chic agenda to “understand” the backwater South Carolinians and “celebrate” their culture, apparently unaware that the joke, all these years later, is still on them.

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2 Responses to “The Origins of the Boiled Peanut: A Parable”

  1. Bill Segars Says:

    Eric, I have been introduced to you by Ben Williamson from Darlington. He has asked me if I would be interested in helping you or him with his Black Creek project. We’ll talk more about that later. Your boiled peanut story reminds me of a true story that happened to me with one on of my Yankee friends.

    Frank and I were out for a beautiful Southern afternoon drive when he asked if I wanted a drink. Of course I said yes. Without thinking much about it I got a 16 oz. Coke and a tube of Lance salted peanuts and Frank picked up a “soda”, as he called it, and a pack of crackers, not nabs as we call them. Back to the car we go and continue our trip. Frank is driving and I open my Coke, take a swallow, open the peanuts and begin pouring the peanut it the top of the Coke. Frank looks over at me and ask “What are you doing?” To which I replied “What do you mean, what am I doing?” “Why are you pouring your peanuts in the drink?” To which I replied ” This is the way that I eat peanuts and drink my drink, they all end up in the same place, why not?”

    Frank had never seen or heard of this being done. To say the least he was amazed with this practice. This spawned more Southern-Northern trends as we rode. All was well, we enjoyed our trip.

    Several days later I was with Frank again. As soon as he saw me he started laughing. When I asked him what he was laughing at he told me “You didn’t tell me that I should drink some Coke from the bottle before I poured the peanuts in. I tried that and it spilled out over my pants” I told him “Frank I know that you’re a Yankee, but I thought that you would be smart enough to figure that out.”

    As Jeff Foxworthy could say “If you don’t take a swallow from you Coke before you pour the peanut in…You might be a Yankee.”

    Enjoy your Labor Day, we’ll talk later.

    • My understanding is that this was a common lunch in the fields for many farmers and workers during the 20th century in SC (and I would presume much of the rest of the South; I’ve heard similar stories from my older Georgia friends). It was quick, brought an immediate energy jolt, and carried enough protein to sustain oneself for the rest of the afternoon. And it tasted good.

      As for northern ignorance of what life in the South is like, my son recently told his Massachusetts classmates that he was going away to visit his father, who lives in the mountains of NC. A young woman, incredulous, then asked, “But…do they even have electricity? And where do they buy their clothes?” It took a lot for my son, who has straddled the North-South divide his entire life, to be sure the southern gentleman in him restrained his northern predilection toward brutal commentary at the expense of the less intelligent.

      Thanks for posting, Bill, and I look forward to meeting and talking with you about Black Creek.

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