Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Boiled Peanuts explained for Yankees and other Foreigners

As winter will soon turn to spring it's time to think about your garden. This year you might consider planting peanuts and boiling them. If you don't know about the pleasures of eating salted, boiled peanuts them this article is intended for you.

When I was a kid in South Carolina we ate boiled peanuts by the pound and watermelon in it's entirety, not by the slice. So I was less than pleased when I moved to Bethesda, MD fifteen years ago. There you cannot find boiled peanuts, hot dogs with edible chili, nor North-Carolina style barbecue. In Baltimore, they roast peanuts at Camden yards'dry, dusty, perhaps even burnt remnants of what was once a great fruit. I moved to Rappahannock a few years ago where I can find good barbecue in nearby Culpepper, but there is definitely a dearth of boiled peanuts in this area.

Along the North and South Carolina and Georgia coasts, boiled peanuts are as ubiquitous as winter-blooming camellia and moonlight-and-magnolia whimsy. Boiled peanuts are sold at gas stations and in outdoor produce markets that line each tourist route. You buy them by the pound where they are scooped out of big vats having been boiled for 15 long hours. Yes that is "hours" for the shell is tough when picked, so you have to cook them ad infinitum until they relent and soften their hide.

In Maryland and Northern Virginia you can buy raw peanuts at curry-and-green-chili-pepper Indian grocery stores and boil them yourself. Indians eat boiled peanuts in Bombay, Bangalore, and Edison, New Jersey. Out here in Rappahannock County neither the highbrow Epicurean Cow nor Sunnyside markets sell them. Too bad, for peanuts could be grown organically which is the stated prerequisite for Sunnyside. That word "organic" is an annoyance to me, because people bandy it about without knowing what it really means. In the case of peanuts you could grow them without chemical pesticides or herbicides'that partially fits the definition of "organic farming". For fertilizer use compost which is definitely organic. For weed control a hoe, roto-tiller, and a strong back will suffice.

People from the diaspora of the deep South'that's Hebrew for everyone not living there'tend to wrinkle up their nose when they taste a quishy, well-salted boiled peanut. It's sort of like listening to the over-the-bridge-and-under-the-tunnel-crowd (a patronizing term used by New Yorkers to describe people living in New Jersey) contemplate about that other Southern peculiarity: grits.

Walnuts displace pecans and blue berries displace pomegranates the further North you travel. This is not necessary for you can grow good peanuts here in Rappahannock County. And any rotten cook can boil water.

Last year I ordered 8 ounces of peanut seed from Burpee, the famous seed company. Then I used a tractor to scoop up a few hundred pounds of sand from the banks of the Thornton River and added this to my garden. I planted the peanuts in rows and used Miracle Grow fertilizer plus lots of water. The results I got were fantastic--I harvested two 50 foot long rows and about 50 pounds of jumbo Virginia peanuts.

I asked Kenner Love, the county agriculture extension agent for our area, if anyone else is growing peanuts here. "No one that I am aware of," he said. He also said that peanuts generally do not need nitrogen and he questioned my practice of adding sand to the soil. " Generally, sand cannot be added in sufficient quantities to alter the overall characteristics of the soil." As to the question whether he had eaten a boiled peanut, Kenner said "no". Aha, another boiled peanut debutante. I must remember to send him a bag.

Roasted peanuts are not the only food I associated with the North when I was a kid living in the Deep South. Bagels, matzo balls, and jug handle right-hand turns in New Jersey were as foreign to us as France. We just didn't understand what those people ate. It's like drinking pastis. Who could actually like that drink from Marseille, France that tastes like licorice'

Peanut plants grow along the ground like vines and the peanuts themselves emerge from the roots like a potato. Weeds were a problem. In hindsight I should have used a good pre-emergence herbicide. This will kill weed seeds as they germinate. For post-emergence problems use a tiller, hoe, or even Roundup (glyphosate) to control weeds. This I did not try with my peanuts but Roundup I know is applied to vineyards to control grass and can be even sprayed onto the grape vines if they are mature. Don't spray roundup on your peanut plants for it might kill them, but you could use it between the plants. Like paraquat, Roundup only kills what it touches.

The peanut plants themselves should be planted 3 feet apart and in rows of sufficient width so that you can walk down them with a tiller or perhaps mower. They spread like a vine and crawl along the ground in a 3 foot radius. Harvest the peanuts after the first killing frost. People who want to dry them out'perhaps to make roasted peanuts--hang them from rafters and other lofty places, sort of like the way tobacco is cured. But I just dump the plants in buckets and wash them free of dirt. The peanut foliage should go on the compost pile. I trust you have a compost pile.

In Carolina people like Senator Ernest Hollings would say "balled peanuts". It's proper English in Charleston. If you want to buy your own you can order a pack of peanuts and salt from the Lee Brothers in Charleston at Boiledpeanuts.com. (I have doubts about boiledpeanuts.com. They don't answer the phone when you call. Still I ordered some peanuts from them last year and they delivered.) If you want to buy them already boiled then order then from Whitley's Peanut Factory in Hayes, Virginia at www.whitleyspeanut.com.

Peanuts are an important crop for Virginia Agriculture says Associate Professor and agriculture economist Jim Pease of Virginia Tech. He says, "Peanuts are indeed a very important crop in the eight counties of Dinwiddie, Greensville, Isle of Wight, Prince George, Southampton, Surry, Sussex, and the city of Suffolk, and in the Commonwealth as a whole. In 2001, approximately 75,000 acres of peanuts were harvested, with cash receipts of nearly $59 million. Peanuts were the fourth highest crop in 2001 in terms of cash receipts, even though they are grown only in a few counties."

He suggested that I had used to wrong type of peanuts to make boiled peanuts. Mr Pease says, "The Virginia-style peanut is one of four major peanut types grown in the U.S. By far the most commonly grown are Runner peanuts, which are usually crushed for peanut butter and other uses. The Virginia-style peanut dominates the 'snack' or 'ballpark' peanut market with its bright shell, large peanuts, and excellent taste. Virginia-style peanuts are said to be the 'Gold Standard' for snacking peanuts. Two other types include the Valencia and Spanish peanuts, which are minor types compared to Runner and Virginia production. As I understand, Valencias are good peanuts for boiling, but Runner peanuts are also boiled and eaten in the southeast U.S. As far as I know, Virginia are not eaten boiled."

As to whether he has enjoyed boiled peanuts himself, he says, "I've eaten boiled peanuts, and I like them. They have a unique flavor, not appealing to everyone."

Mary Ann Rood, editor of "The Peanut Farmer" magazine, says, "You can probably buy Roddenberry's canned boiled peanuts in a supermarket near you to try. I guess some folks are just not lucky enough to run into boiled peanuts."

I neglected to tell Ms. Rood that in Rappahannock County, there is no "supermarket near you." I guess you will have to plant your own or buy them over the Internet. When you boil them make sure you keep adding water so they won't burn. As a variation on this theme you could add hot peppers and make them so-called "cajun style".

Copyright 2003 Rappahannock News. Reprinted with Permission.

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