Midsummer heat packs a punch. You’re roadtripping in the blazing sun, when out of the blue appears a sign: “Boiled Peanuts” with an arrow pointing ahead. Your heart skips a beat. Maybe it’s the salt you crave, or the addictive ritual of splitting open shell after shell to reveal plump little jewels of protein still soaking in their salty baths, ready to be devoured.
In South Carolina, near a turnoff to Edisto Island sits a ramshackle, abandoned house with a small trailer out front beside a giant sign. I’ve passed it countless times without stopping. A man sits in a foldout chair, sunning himself and reading a novel, precariously close to the 18-wheelers and cars whizzing past. I imagine him a disgruntled dreamer, perhaps a former stockbroker who quit his high-stress job to simplify life by boiling peanuts, turning to Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in between customers.
One day, I decide to stop, to set the record straight. Who is this man?
Johnny Hodges, a burly, kind fellow with a tattoo on his forearm of a gun-toting Yosemite Sam, lets me step into his trailer where large pots of peanuts boil away, making his service counter roughly the temperature of Hell (no wonder he sits outside). A stack of paperback thrillers provides distraction— alas, no Joseph Conrad. I would have been tickled to find romance novels.
Hodges explains that he grew up nearby, a mile away. This abandoned shell of a building was once a general store. As a child, he walked here to purchase sodas for seven cents and got a penny back for the bottle. He got the idea to open up a roadside boiled peanuts stand a few years ago from a Lowcountry friend who taught him everything he needed to know. Unlike others who might use hot sauce to kick up their spicy versions, Hodges grinds up fresh habaneros and adds chunks of jalapenos to the boil. He does a solid business, from 10 a.m. until dark, seven days a week, in all weather apart from a torrential rainstorm (not many stop in a downpour). He has devoted regulars.
I thank him, digging the Zen of his day-to-day, and pull back on the highway with a few bags to bring home. I savor a few as I drive, tossing shells out the window as countless travelers have done before me. Life is best when it’s a little salty.