Maybe it’s just a southern thang, but I can’t pass up a roadside vendor of boiled peanuts. And all my life I have enjoyed putting a healthy handful of unsalted peanuts in my colas. Call it a country boy’s cocktail: a perfect pick-me-up combo of flavored fizzy sugar water and protein-packed peanuts.
Instead of being produced on trees, bushes, or vines, the way a sane person would expect, peanuts develop underground. Unlike true nuts, peanuts (Arachis hypogaea, also known as pinders, goober peas, ground peas, and ground nuts) are unusual members of the legume family, with the same pea- and beanlike ability to “fix” nitrogen from the air on root nodules (great for adding back to the garden soil or compost). Sturdy “pegs” snake out of the yellow flowers and into the soil, where the rough, seed-filled pods are formed (hypogaea means “under the earth”).
Peanut seeds are among the world’s wonders for healthful goodness. Peanuts contain more than 75 percent good unsaturated fat and more antioxidants than nearly any other more highly touted fruit or vegetable, and—vegetarians and vegans, rejoice!—higher amounts of vegetable protein than any true nut.
Although more than 3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts, the rest of us eat a lot of them. Forget the peanut oil, the snacks, and flavorful ingredients in our favorite dishes; last year, Americans spent almost $800 million on peanut butter alone. Even the hulls have value, finding use in products that range from wallboard to cat litter, fireplace logs, cosmetics, mulch, and cattle feed.
A bit of history: From their origins in ancient Peru, peanuts were spread by Portuguese traders to Africa, India, and China, where they quickly became staples before making their way to North America from Africa. Still, they took a couple of centuries to catch on as a food source in the United States.
In 1860, yearly peanut production in the United States amounted to roughly 150,000 bushels. During lean Civil War times, boiled peanuts, called goober peas, were used as an emergency ration by grateful soldiers. By 1895, when 8 million bushels were grown, mechanized planting and harvesting made peanuts easier to produce, and they began showing up as snack food in pubs, sports stadiums, circuses, and other “peanut galleries.”
George Washington Carver, the celebrated researcher of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, championed peanuts in the early 20th century as an alternative crop for land depleted by cotton cultivation. He promoted more than 300 uses for the soil-improving legume, including industrial products, foods, and cosmetics.
Wartime shortages of vegetable oil and the growing popularity of roasted peanuts and peanut candies further increased demand for peanuts, and Elvis Presley’s grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches clinched their place in popular culture. Nowadays, more peanuts are eaten in the United States than walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts combined.