Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jacks

Boiled peanuts

Southeastern U.S.

An old sign near the Georgia-Florida border

An old sign near the Georgia-Florida border

Can you imagine attending a Major League baseball game or going to the circus where you weren't sitting knee-deep in a mound of peanut shells after your third or fourth bag? How about sitting in a roadhouse diner or bar and working your way through the basket of roasted peanuts on the table or bar? Well, in the Southeastern U.S. you'd have to rethink your bar snack strategy since Mr. Peanut is more likely to be presented fresh out of the hot tub. Southerners have been boiling the legume for about as long as they've been eating it; in fact, it is said to have kept the Confederate army going during lean times since the dry peanuts travel well and can be boiled whenever needed. The process of boiling them is mind-numbingly simple, but before you go opening a jar of Planter's Dry Roasted and dump them willy-nilly into a sauce pan full of roiling salted water, consider that only green (freshly picked) peanuts will work. The peanuts are rinsed and soaked (in-shell), then boiled in salted water for up to 4 hours - the finished product is a pea that has the consistency of an undercooked kidney bean or baked potato. In addition to salt, some people add Cajun or other spices to the soup to give an additional kick and flavor to the peanuts. Ironically the peanut taste itself is muted (it's possible that much of the flavor gets boiled out), but depending on how long they've been sitting prior to serving they can be filled with hot, salty broth. Since the shell can have the consistency of anywhere between damp straw and wet cardboard getting to the nut can be a little tricky; although some people recommend tearing the shell open with your teeth, there is a good chance of rendering the pea into mush that won't come out of the shell. The best way appears to be finding the natural seam of the shell and tearing gently apart - of course you're still stuck with the task of freeing the soft meat from the shell.
The clerk at Florida Citrus Center scoops a cup of boiled peanuts

The clerk at Florida Citrus Center scoops a cup of boiled peanuts

Finding boiled peanuts in the South is easy - they generally find you. There are a profusion of roadside stands and shacks peppering both sides of the I-95 corridor that runs through boiled peanut country (North Carolina through Florida), with additional stands throughout Alabama and Mississippi. It is best to eat them freshly boiled since they don't keep well afterwards - I recommend finding a place where you can sit outdoors and plow through your peanuts without having to worry about properly disposing of your biodegradable shells. I would advise caution, however, as that sweet little patch of grass under a spreading magnolia may also be a popular spot with the invasive red imported fire ant. These tiny bad boys will happily eat your peanut shells and you for desert. Like hot dogs or any other street treat, there's something about eating them outdoors that increases your enjoyment of the boiled peanuts. Throughout Florida there are a series of souvenir stands going by the name Florida Citrus Center offering citrus fruit and a free cup of orange juice, in addition to the aforementioned boiled peanuts. Billboards for one of the stands advertises a 13-foot alligator on the premises that turns out to be a moth-eaten stuffed relic spilling out stuffing in a cage in front of the stand. Wally Gator's preserved cousin inside the stand is in much better shape and presides over a kingdom of mini alligator heads available for sale.
A bowl of boiled peanuts at Gaspar's Grotto in Ybor City, FL

A bowl of boiled peanuts at Gaspar's Grotto in Ybor City, FL

If cruising the highways to satisfy your goober fix isn't your cup of tea, most restaurants in the Southern states offer them as a pre-meal snack free of charge. From Gaspar's Grotto in Ybor City, Florida to Hominy Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, boiled peanuts grace the tables of a wide variety of restaurants. The dish is so popular that they were recently officially declared the State Snack of South Carolina (you can keep your popcorn, Illinois). In times past these would have automatically appeared on the table but in the era of peanut allergies, your wait staff now politely asks before bringing them out. What are you waiting for - gas up the station wagon, pick up Jimmy Carter and the ghost of George Washington Carver and motor down Interstate 95 for the snack that makes Andre the Giant ask the all-important question, "Anyone want a peanut?" Florida Citrus Center #50 1789 SW Highway 484 Ocala, Florida 34473-3922 GPS Coordinates: 29°1'32.98"N 82°9'18.41"W

GALLERY: See images of boiled peanuts from Val's Southeast road trip

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