Odes to the Lowcountry: Boiled Peanuts
The true power of the humble snack food
It’s not hard to be a good host in Charleston. You can simply get a box of Mrs. Hamby’s chicken salad sandwiches and a fifth of bourbon, and the party is on. Or maybe you’re one of those who sets out the linen cocktail napkins and chafing dish at the first whiff of an upcoming christening or engagement. No matter your style, there is one party food—really a party in itself—that, despite its humble roots, rises above all others.
It’s salty, wet, and may leave a trickle running down your arm. You’d think it’d be considered gauche, yet well-mannered ladies have served it from sterling punch bowls. And these same ladies have slurped up its goodness with a familiarity that shows it’s by practice and not by accident that they manage to avoid a drop on their Sunday finest. It’s the boiled peanut, and it’s a powerful thing.
My grandfather makes some of the best. They are supernaturally large with hard sinewy shells and open with a satisfying fwump of the thumb. The fleshy nuggets sit up ready to be plucked or sucked from their watery beds. My grandfather boils them in big batches under his house, producing a mysterious cloud that smells like dirt. Is this where the magic happens, or is it in the nuts themselves? If you ask him where he gets the raw peanuts, he mumbles, “Down at the crossroads,” and you nod like you know where he means.
If someone is sick, my grandfather sends a knotted plastic grocery bag full of goobers. If someone has a baby, the same. Graduation party, plastic bag. Six-hour car trip, plastic bag. Boat ride, funeral, tennis match: plastic bag, plastic bag, plastic bag. If at the moment you are inexplicably sated with peanuts, go ahead and stick the whole bundle in the freezer. When a need arises, such as welcoming a new neighbor, the peanuts miraculously plump back to life after a hot bath on the stove top.
It’s not as simple as random acts of goobers—my grandfather knows what he’s doing. He knows that no matter what your condition, your celebration, your ailment, or your journey, eating boiled peanuts makes you feel better. If you’re at a party and have poor social skills, head to the peanut bowl. Your nervous hands will find steady work in the shells, and with your mouth full, no one will expect you to talk. If pressed, you need only say, “Good peanuts, huh?” and keep on shelling. Just be sure there are plenty of goobers to go around; otherwise, you’ll be worse off than you were before. You’ll be known as the poor sap who ate all the peanuts, and people will say to you, “Good peanuts, huh?” even when you’re not eating peanuts.
Or if you are brooding and enjoying it in a Pat Conroy kind of way, eating boiled peanuts can enhance the experience. Grab a Styrofoam cup of nuts, dangle your legs over the side of a dock, chew each nut slowly, toss one half of the shell into the water, and watch as the current pulls it away from you. Then toss the other half. Repeat.
When you’re fishing and nothing is biting, you can pick out a target—a rotting post or a crab pot float, for example—and have a friendly competition with your buddy to see who can stick a shell to it. Or if you’re tailgating and your team is doing poorly, you can chomp the nuts with conviction and flick the shells onto the ground with the intensity with which you wish your team were playing. You can even grind the shells into the ground with your shoe if it makes you feel better, all the while savoring the salty, slithery taste that will brace you against any score.
The following mode of peanut therapy may be too advanced unless you are a seasoned gobbler. My grandfather has mastered this technique. If you should find yourself on a porch or in a kitchen or on the beach with someone and you’re not sure if she is mad at you, or if you have a crush on the person, or if you have something to say but you just don’t have the words for it, eat the goobers like you don’t give a damn and then toss a shell at her when she isn’t looking and see what she does. You’ll get your answer.
Ask my grandmother or anyone who knows my grandfather, and they will tell you communication is not his gift. But I just don’t believe that’s exactly true. The man makes the best goobers around and shares them with almost everyone he meets. Doesn’t that say something?
The host with the best goobers is bound to attract a crowd, and my grandfather usually does. I don’t think he minds if it’s his boiled peanuts that bring people to his Citadel tailgates or Fourth of July parties. Serving the peanuts is his way of saying, “I’m glad you’re here.” And when he hands you a cup of goobers, he’s not saying, “Eat this.” He’s saying, “Enjoy, have fun, come back, be careful, I’m thinking about you.”
He’s not an easy nut to crack himself, but if he offers you his peanuts, you should take them. You’ll feel better. And isn’t that why we love to throw parties in the first place? To feel good and pass that on to those we care about? That’s the power of peanuts.
Illustration by Steve Haske