By ALLISON BALLARD, The Associated Press
WILMINGTON, N.C. — People unaccustomed to eating boiled peanuts have doubts about the practice. You try to eat one for the first time, digging your way past the soggy, brine-soaked hull, only to have the thing squirt you. And, on first taste, the soft, salty, beanlike prize doesn’t seem worth the effort. Cece Hudson of Turkey described the appeal of the regional delicacy best.
"Why do we shuck oysters? Why do we pick crab legs?" she said. "It’s like eating watermelon. There aren’t too many things you can eat and take a bath in at the same time."
You don’t eat these foods with a knife and fork, but with your fingers, juices running down your arms. They’re best enjoyed unadorned, the focus of the simplest meals and at lazy social gatherings.
Boiled peanuts are Southern, but not regionally ubiquitous. Because they’re made from green peanuts, which are freshly dug, they’re mostly found in big peanut-producing states such as South Carolina and Georgia. That also includes North Carolina; farmers might grow more soybeans (1.45 million acres of them), corn and cotton, but the 105,000 acres of peanuts planted here is only 54,000 less than the acres allotted to tobacco.
I grew up in the heart of Virginia peanut country – there’s a whole class of peanuts named after the state – but I had never experienced boiled peanuts until I moved to Wilmington.
Even then, I wasn’t a fan. Luckily, I’m not quick to judge and happily agreed to go in search of boiled peanuts last week, a journey that led me from Wilmington to Dublin, Bladenboro, Scotts Hill and Turkey.
Hudson’s Sampson County home was one of my last stops. Each year, she and her husband Jart host a boiled peanut party that coincides with the first weeks of their peanut harvest and the birthday of their oldest child.
It was there, seated in a circle of folding chairs on a concrete-floor garage, eating plate after plate of boiled peanuts with the 60 or so other guests, that I wondered, "Why am I enjoying this so much?"
After Hudson’s explanation, it made perfect sense. Even though my family always ate roasted peanuts, the experience of eating mushier ones recalled other memories, of being sticky with watermelon juice or fishing meat out of crab legs.
"Both of our families boiled peanuts, we both grew up eating boiled peanuts," Hudson said. Sunday was her fifth annual boiled peanut party. The five bushels of peanuts she served came from the fields near her house. Her husband and farm workers had dug them that morning.
"Everybody enjoys it. It’s not a fancy party," she said.
The focus is on a few homemade treats. The peanuts had the starring role, as guests scooped them warm by the cupful from coolers. Diners could satisfy their sweet tooths by trying homemade ice cream – one freezer was full of strawberry and one was full of peach – and a chocolate pound cake.
"Grandma made the pound cake," Hudson said.
In an article in the upcoming Southern food writing anthology "Cornbread Nation 2," John Martin Taylor, author of "Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking," tries to trace the origins of boiled peanuts but finds only murky answers. There are no records of the treat in 18th- and 19th-century publications.
Milton Harrell, 73, said he’s been eating boiled peanuts for more than 60 years. The North Carolina native’s first experience with them is closely tied to tobacco harvests.
He remembers long nights of curing the leaves, before the days of oil or gas burners, when the process had to be closely watched. The workers would have a pot of peanuts on to boil, and maybe a stewed chicken, to keep them going through the night.
At the time, Harrell could buy a bag with a couple of handfuls of peanuts for 10 cents. These days, a bag will cost $1-$3.
At his produce stand off Market Street near Porters Neck, Harrell sells peaches, homegrown tomatoes and okra. He also makes boiled peanuts when they’re in season.
"Most people are just digging the plants now," he said.
Hudson said that’s another reason for boiled peanuts’ appeal. When many Southern fruits and vegetables are past their peak, the peanuts are just coming in.
"The peanuts aren’t at full maturity," she said. In a few more weeks, the bulk of the harvested peanut crop will go to more traditional purposes. About half of all peanuts raised are used to make peanut butter. But the younger nuts, the ones that are ready now, make the best boiled peanuts.
Hudson usually starts by cleaning the nuts in three washes of cold, clear water.
Every boiled peanut maker has his or her own touch with the amount of salt, water and time. The kind of peanut used also makes a difference in texture and taste.
The Virginia peanut family is larger than the smaller, rounder Spanish peanut family. Harrell prefers the smaller varieties.
Charlie Garriss, who sells boiled peanuts from a stand in Scotts Hill, likes to use the larger ones.
On Friday, Garriss was already worried about not having enough peanuts for his weekend customers. When I drove up to his stand, he was talking to a Rocky Point farmer on his cell phone. Unfortunately, the rain had kept the farmer from digging that morning.
An hour or so later, I met his son, Rob Garriss, who was trying to buy green peanuts for his father from James Jones, who had some of his crop for sale at a roadside stand in Watha.
Four workers sat under the shelter of the Jones’ stand, ignoring the rain and picking the green peanuts from freshly dug plants.
"I just boil them and freeze them for personal use," Garriss said. "My father boils them to sell."
And the key to his success is "the right amount of salt," said Garriss, 62. "And you have to let the water cool to allow the salt to soak in and soften the hull."
Before you start thinking this is a weird way to cook peanuts, remember that they aren’t actually nuts, but legumes. Boiling peanuts is comparable to the Japanese practice of boiling soybeans in salt water to make edamame.
It can take hours to boil peanuts, unless you use a pressure cooker. The Bladenboro Lions Club uses a vat.
Every year about this time, the club cooks and sells large quantities of peanuts to raise money. Every Friday for four or five weeks in a row, they set up in downtown Bladenboro and sell between 800 and 900 paper bags of nuts for $1 each.
On Thursdays before the sale, club members prepare the vat with 15 bushels, using 2 pounds of salt per bushel. They turn it on to cook at about 3:30 p.m., someone turns it off at 10:30 p.m. and another group returns at 6 a.m. to get ready for the sale.
They’re roadside by 7:30 a.m. and stay until the last bag is sold. People love it, "’cause we give ’em a good-sized bag for a dollar," said Gene Stallings, club president. "You can’t always find that these days."
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