A roadside staple of Charleston’s highways and byways, the boiled peanut holds a controversial place in our Lowcountry hearts.
The very mention of a boiled peanut strikes fear in some, and lust in others. Some people wrinkle their noses in disgust, vowing to never touch those abominations again, while others lose all control of their senses when faced with a hot and steamy bag. How can such an unassuming, familiar nut wreak such havoc on the human psyche?
After all, it’s just a peanut. The peanut we Americans have adored since birth (before all the allergies cropped up). The peanut that makes up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crunchy or smooth – eaten on a spoon, roasted, shelled and nibbled at the ballgame, in a bowl at a cocktail party or keeping your beer company at the bar. The peanut is Reeses Pieces and golden brown cookies smashed down with a fork in cross stitch patterns, hot out of the oven with a glass of cold milk. So why all the intensity about the boiled peanut? Isn’t it just another form of our beloved American snack food?
Absolutely not. The boiled peanut is an entity unto itself. No one should ever have “regular peanut” expectations of a boiled peanut – to do so is close to an insult. Or so I discovered so many years ago…
Though I am Southern by birth, I was raised by a Northeasterner and a Midwesterner in a culinary world devoid of this nosh. As such, I did not have the chance to try the boiled peanut until I reached the ripe old age of 21. Like most semi-adults previously unacquainted, I remember my first time vividly. Deep into the enchantment of my newfound love for all things Southern, I was presented the boiled peanut by a Tradd Street native son, who bemusedly set the brown craggy beast on the palm of my hand and watched and waited.
As I fumbled, he giggled, then guffawed as my face screwed up in shock. My first experience of the boiled peanut was as if you are meeting a future spouse for the first time. A future spouse who does not fit any part of your wishlist or your wild-eyed expectations, but somehow just works. Denial, shock, and bewilderment, followed by a letting go, giving in and then a falling madly, irrevocably in love. There ever after, the boiled peanut became a dangerous obsession of mine, against which I had no will power or resistance.
To be honest, I didn’t perfect the art of eating the peanut until later on in our relationship. At first it was an awkward pinch and a pry, followed by a rogue wave of hot liquid down my hands and not into my mouth. I was gawky in my removal of those things and it became quite a mess to boot. I loved the taste of it, but didn’t yet know how to handle it, not being fully versed in its insides and out.
But once I understood the Boiled Peanut Being, what special secrets were held inside that shell, I came to know its true delights. To appropriately honor it, one must pierce the shell with the greatest of care, holding it horizontal so as to not waste what lies simmering inside. You take off its top, unveil the little semi-soft pieces inside bathing happily in their salty brine, and in one fell swoop, much like a raw oyster, you bring it to your mouth and toss it all back together. Some prefer the perpendicular method. I enjoy the horizontal one with a little lip and a slurp. Others just put the whole thing in their mouth, pinch it with their teeth, tongue the meat out and then spit the shell into their hands. That’s a little too much for me, but I’ve gotta admire the hutzpah. Regardless of the preferred method of consumption, the end result is the same. Pure. Utter. Happiness.
So if you’ve never tried one, I beg of you, venture out. Take a leap out into the unknown and stop by the roadside when you see that handwritten sign beckoning you in the distance. (My personal favorite is the enthusiastic and always chatty guy at the base of the Isle of Palms Connector). Get a bag, maybe two, and commit. Commit to experimentation, to the possibility of love of the unknown and different. You just might find out something new.
To those of you who already know this Lowcountry lust, I commend your appetite for this sensuous preparation of an earthly legume. With its malleable shell, the surprisingly soft meat and its salty steaming brine, the boiled peanut is most certainly a symbol of our beloved Lowcountry. And that, my friends, is quite alright.