Eatin’ Goober Peas

William A. Balk, Jr.

Will Balk Weekly Hubris Banner 2017.

“It would be sad to have to miss out on the joy of reaching into a damp brown paper bag, removing a fat, soft, whole peanut in its soggy shell, popping the entire thing in your mouth and gently biting/chewing/sucking out the salty juice and the soft-cooked nuts inside . . . and then spitting out the masticated fibrous shell. Fabulous!”William A. Balk, Jr.

Epicurus’ Porch

By William A. Balk, Jr.

Peanuts: boiled peanuts on the left.

Peanuts: boiled peanuts on the left.

William A. Balk, Jr.

BEAUFORT South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—November 2018—‘Tis the season, everyone! Boiled peanuts! That glory of Southern snackdom. There are unpleasant rumors circulating which suggest some people don’t care for the unique, mucilaginous, somewhat saline taste of this rare seasonal delicacy; I’m rather doubtful that these rumors are true, although I do understand that some unfortunate individuals are allergically responsive to nuts and must avoid peanuts. It would be sad to have to miss out on the joy of reaching into a damp brown paper bag, removing a fat, soft, whole peanut in its soggy shell, popping the entire thing in your mouth and gently biting/chewing/sucking out the salty juice and the soft-cooked nuts inside . . . and then spitting out the masticated fibrous shell. Fabulous!

Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are a major agricultural crop in South Carolina. Unfortunately, the significant rains and flooding of the last weeks have done serious damage to a number of crops in the state; the worst affected are likely to be cotton, peanuts, and soybeans. Your boiled peanuts may be harder to find and more expensive to buy this year . . . not to mention your soy sauce, your plastics, and all those wonderful cotton T-shirts you wear all year round. The torrential rains arrived just as these crops were about to begin harvest, so a significant percentage of each will be lost to fungal infection, rot, or physical damage. It is, sadly, the farmer’s lot. I did notice, however, my farming neighbor who grows many hundreds of acres of all threecotton, soybeans, and peanutsmanaged somehow to get his peanuts dug, turned out, dried, and harvested . . . all between the devastating rains of Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Much of the cotton crop was damaged in the deluges, but the peanuts were successful.

Peanuts are grown and harvested in a most interesting way. They are, of course, one of the legumesthey are in the bean family. The seeds are planted in rows once the soil is warm enoughabove 60 degrees Fahrenheitand they grow into handsome, lush, low, bushy plants. They require about four and a half months of frost-free weather from planting to harvesting, preferring a sandy soil for good drainage.

Peanut plant.

Peanut plant.

Once the pretty little yellow flowers appear, the peanut is beginning its most unusual stage. The flowers serve their typical reproductive purpose of pollination and fertilization and, once fertilized, the flower stem begins to elongate and droop down toward the ground, taking about ten days to reach the soil.

After perhaps a week, the tip begins to enlarge, becoming the shell and kernel, and it drills down into the soil. Below ground, the peanut then ripens and matures over two months or more before it is ready for harvest.

Harvesting is also a bit different. When the peanuts are fully ripened, before the frosts begin, the farmer must sever the root of the entire plant, lift each plant, shake the soil from around the roots, and invert it on top of the ground, leaving leaves down and roots up. The peanuts are exposed to the air and are allowed to dry in windrows for several days.

After curing his crop above ground, the farmer, using another piece of equipmenta “combine”goes along the windrow to remove the peanuts from the plant, store the nuts in a hopper on the combine, and return the plant to the windrow in the field.

Further curing and drying is needed before the peanut is ready for market.

Now, is it obvious at how many stages the poor peanut is susceptible to damage from too much rain? All along the way, the plant needs just the right amount of water to flourish and flower and set seed. But once the plant has “pegged” and set its nuts below ground, it is extremely vulnerable to damage or complete loss due to rain. And that’s what happened this year in South Carolina.

Mr. Peanut goes to war.

Mr. Peanut goes to war.

Which is to say, Dear Readers of my little celebration of this rarely-considered nut, cherish your peanut butter this year, rejoice in your deep-frying peanut oil, be thankful for your boiled peanuts. Above all, remember where your food comes from, consider the struggling farmer who brought it to you, and spare a thought for the very many who will have lost their cropyour cropthis year. 

Note: The photo of boiled peanuts, by Katorisi, is used under Creative Commons License. The image of the peanut plant and the image of Mr. Peanut are both in the public domain. All were found on Wikimedia Commons

William A. Balk, Jr.

About William A. Balk, Jr.

Born and reared in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, William A. Balk, Jr. was educated at the state's namesake university, became an activist confronting the power of the modern State and its military, and spent two years in a radical gay commune in the nation's capital. He has taught textile construction and design for the Smithsonian and Textile Museum in Washington, collected modern porcelain masters, and has submitted to a peculiar affinity for independent book stores. Balk returned to the South Carolina Low Country in middle age, as well as to his extended family, and a literary life lived largely out of doors. Book stores and gardening remain his perennial passions, as does writing. He has been a regular columnist for "The Lowcountry Weekly " newspaper for seven years; he is included in the award-winning book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy. He has assumed several new roles in recent years, including caregiver for his near-centenarian mother, advisor to the Pat Conroy Literary Center, and member of the Board of Directors for South Carolina Humanities. Like one of his heroes, Epicurus, whose philosophical school was called “The Garden,” Balk's aim has long been “to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.”
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6 Responses to Eatin’ Goober Peas

  1. Avatar Diana says:

    Dear Will, I think I prefer my peanuts roasted rather than boiled. But then I’ve never had the . . . pleasure. Still, it’s heartbreaking to read about all the damage you’ve had from too much water as opposed to the damage here in some parts of Greece we’ve had from too little (as well as damage in many wine-growing areas either because of drought or downpours). Thank you for your homily to the lowly peanut, I will definitely give it more consideration. Meanwhile, grateful for what we do have and for the unsung farmers who bring us all that we have to eat.

  2. Avatar Will says:

    Amen, Diana. Gratitude, indeed, for those who provide. Drought was our state of being . . . until our hurricanes arrived. That’s how it’s been for centuries, I think, here in the lower coastal South. It isa time we all bus rethink our expectations from our farmers, our crops, our climates. We’re in for some rude changes. That you, Diana mou, for your reading my little piece – and we’ll see if we can get you to try a boiled peanut one day!

  3. Avatar Dana Wildsmith says:

    Preach it, Brother Will. I am a believer, and an unabashed proselytizer for boiled peanuts. And now you have even made eating them seem patriotic! Praise be.

  4. Avatar Laura McMahan says:

    Will, It was great to see you at the Pat Conroy Center in Beaufort. I know how proud Libby is of her brother. I grew up in Pelion which is the home of the Peanut Festival. There is nothing better that boiled – salty – peanuts. What a southern delicacy!!!

  5. Avatar Will says:

    Actually, Dana, I’ve always kind of avoided spreading the good news about boiled peanuts in order to keep them for those of us who depend on having a bowl or a bag of them nearby in season. Nowadays, of course, the season seems not to end, and the discoverers of the delicacy are just as determined to have theirs as we old-timers are. Thanks for reading, faithful reader!

  6. Avatar Will says:

    Laura – what a delight finally to meet you. Libby has for years talked of her appreciation for your support, guidance, and leadership at school as well as of how valued your friendship has been to her. I’m delighted to know that you appreciate peanuts, too! I’m even more pleased you had a good time in Beaufort and at the Center. Come on back!

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