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Meeting Mr. Peanut

A transplanted Southerner revisits her love of "country caviar" during a chance encounter with the world's most famous peanut farmer.


AS A SOUTHERN GIRL, I’ve always loved the boiled peanut, a true down-home delicacy. But when I moved to New York City after college, the love became a solitary one. In fact, I was a laughingstock of Yankee gourmands. Now, to all those snobby Northern naysayers, a message: Jimmy Carter has my back.

I can pull this card because I recently spent a sunny afternoon knocking back cold ones with our 39th president at the Steinhatchee Landing Resort, a cluster of upscale cottages tucked beneath Florida’s panhandle. Jimmy was there for his annual family reunion, and my parents and I were enjoying an overnight getaway. When Dean Fowler, the owner, asked us if we wanted to meet his old friends the Carters, we jumped at the chance.

What topic did Jimmy and I cover out there by the pool? Boiled peanuts, thank you very much. Or, as we hicks like to call them, country caviar. And for a relocated Southerner long obsessed with ushering the salty regional delicacy into the greater culinary landscape, this was more than serendipity. As everyone knows, Carter has farmed peanuts in Plains, Georgia, all his life. So this was a cluster of stars forming a perfect, nut-shaped constellation: The boiled peanut’s moment had arrived.

If you’re not from the Southeast — the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi or North Florida — you may have no idea what a boiled peanut is. They trace at least back to the Civil War, when they were rationed out to Confederate soldiers who sang about their beloved “goober peas” in folk songs. The recipe is simple enough: Raw green peanuts are thrown into a pressure cooker and boiled in salty brine. The mushy little pockets are then bagged and sold at roadside shacks or scooped into Styrofoam cups from slowcookers at convenience stores. Connoisseurs pop the entire thing in their mouths, shell included, and suck.

When I first brought a bag of boiled peanuts north and served them to my friends, they weren’t received with the fervor I expected. “That’s just nasty,” said a friend from Connecticut, openly horrified at the soggy mound I’d dumped on a bar napkin. Sadly, it was a sentiment I’d hear repeated by many acquaintances over the years. In fact, of all the New Yorkers I tried them on, only a French transplant from Provence approved. Surely that’s a sign of the boiled peanut’s subtle sophistication.

Despite the resounding rejection of my beloved nuts, I briefly toyed with the idea of marketing them up North as a way of importing an endearing Southern tradition. It would have been a noble thing to do — honorable, even — but ill-fated. I was fresh out of college and wanted to come off as polished, in-the-know, urbane. Selling hillbilly nuts at the Union Square greenmarket did not seem urbane.

And then I met Jimmy.

IN 1929, an ambitious little boy named James Earl Carter Jr. also thought he could turn a buck hawking boiled peanuts except — unlike yours truly — little Jimmy didn’t just talk a big game with his layabout friends in dank Brooklyn bars; he actually made it happen.

“I started out when I was five years old, going out to my father’s field and pulling peanuts up out of the ground,” he began, as I sat with his wife, Rosalynn, and Dean. Nearby, Hugo — Amy Carter’s nine-year-old son — swung on a playground swing as a few Secret Service agents discreetly loitered nearby.

Every day, Jimmy explained, he would divvy up his freshly boiled peanuts (and here, he drew the word “boiled” out to the properly Southern-fried “baaald”) into 20 half-pound paper bags and hit the railroad tracks of Plains, ducking in and out of stores and selling his bags at five cents apiece.

“I made a dollar a day,” he said, eyeing me keenly, as if he had not yet decided whether I understood the relative heft of that kind of cash landing in the palm of a five-year-old 80 years ago. “That’s when a grown man was getting a dollar a day for working sixteen hours in the field.”

As I absorbed this, a sort of shame crept over me. How could I have thought I was too cool to sell boiled peanuts? Jimmy hadn’t figured selling goober peas would sully his image. He had made it happen, pocketed the dough, probably bought his friends a round of taffy or whatever kids ate in 1929 — and then gone on to become Leader of the Free World.

But while Jimmy eased my mind about the classiness of the product, he didn’t address my concerns over nationwide resistance. I was halfway through asking him if he thought Yankees would break down and join the fan club when he gave his head a single, resolute shake, “No.”

In Rosalynn’s opinion, the problem was that too many tourists were getting what Jimmy calls “artificial peanuts” that had been boiled to death by lazy roadside vendors. “The dried ones,” she said softly, her beautiful Southern lilt stretching out like caramel, “where they soak them overnight and then boil them forever.”

“People who love boiled peanuts wouldn’t think of eating those,” Jimmy sniffed. “It turns people against them.”

So how do you boil a peanut that Jimmy Carter would love? Well, it helps to own a peanut farm. When the season hits, he boils them fresh off the vine for 30 minutes. If they aren’t salty enough, he lets them soak a bit longer. Afterward, he freezes them in half-pound plastic baggies (a concession to technology) with “a tiny bit of saltwater to keep them moist,” he said. “So then when you get ready to eat them you just put them in a pot and heat them until they get hot — and they taste just like fresh.”

If, say, you don’t own a peanut farm, is there a brand he recommends? “No,” he blurted out before he could help himself, and the table erupted in laughter. Then his face softened into a mischievous grin.

“There are some good brands,” he allowed, “but I can’t think of them right now.”

Later, Dean leaned in. “Hardy Farms is pretty good,” he whispered. “You can get them at the local Publix.”

I SPENT MY toddler years squeezed into my mother’s shopping cart at Publix, combing the grocery aisles while my three older siblings were in school. When I got bigger, I rode on the back of the cart, hopping off to score a free cookie at the bakery; as a teenager I shuffled behind her, feigning boredom. I’ve always loved grocery stores.

While we never went hungry, we had the kind of modest, six-man household where requests for fussy snacks fell on deaf ears. I learned this early on, when I developed a craving for Pringles. (“Rich man chips,” my mother said.) Children are adaptable, though, and so I refocused my energies on boiled peanuts — an affordable snack just a bike ride away at the local 8 Till Late.

Now when I go home to Jacksonville for the holidays, I find the refrigerator lovingly stuffed with boiled peanuts — and before I return to New York I stock up, double-bagging them so they don’t leak, and stacking them neatly in my suitcase. During short visits, my mom and I keep our eyes peeled for roadside stands on the way to the airport. When we see one, we shout, eliciting a groan from my father as he swerves to make a U-turn.

It’s absurd — and yet, anyone who’s ever been homesick for their childhood comfort food knows there are no limits to how far they’ll go to find it.

The last thing Jimmy Carter said to me by the pool at Steinhatchee makes me think he might agree. As I shook his hand, I stumbled over one of those seemingly inane statements one makes when they realize they’ve burned an hour of an American president’s time discussing snack food. “This has been the greatest honor of my life, to sit here and talk boiled peanuts with you, sir.”

But before I could get the last word out, he waved his hand in the air dismissively.

“Boiled peanuts,” he said, looking me square in the eye and affecting a perfect mix of sincerity and irony, “is an honorable discussion.”

CINDY PRICE frequently writes about food and travel for The New York Times and the American Michelin guides. She can often be found hovering near bourbon, tacos and, of course, boiled peanuts.

3 Responses to “Meeting Mr. Peanut”

  1. Linda Says:
    June 8th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Great article. This is a very talented writer.

  2. Ed Says:
    June 11th, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    As long as the peanuts are served with a cold one, and you don't talk too much politics while I'm trying to watch the game, you can boil them all you want.

  3. Les Says:
    June 12th, 2009 at 3:12 am

    I'm just about the furthest thing from a Southerner as you can get, but the first time I had boiled peanuts a couple years ago (as a side dish at a Chinese Hot Pot party, apparently they are also popular in Asia), I was smitten. In Brooklyn, you can get them at the Huckleberry Bar on Grand Ave in Williamsburg, alongside a tasty jalapeno infused tequila cocktail.