When I was a kid every summer, my mother and I hit the road, driving from Miami to Claxton, Georgia to visit family. Just a few hours in and I’d start looking for handwritten signs on cardboard and wood. P-Nuts, Goober Peas, often misspelled as Bolied Penuts, it didn’t matter how they said it, I just knew that it wasn’t a real road trip without them.
In those days they couldn’t be found much near Miami, but once we hit Central Florida, I scanned the by-ways of 301, looking for roadside fruit stands, trailers, and shacks that sold sweet-smelling barbecue along with the prize I sought. From trip to trip, I remembered where the good places were, and who had betrayed my favorite food by boiling the flavor out. My eagle eyes could find any likely looking cooking vat, be it inside a country store or on the shoulder of the road.
What I didn’t know back then is how very Southern the boiled peanut really is. The older name, goober peas, is more accurate, as it’s a legume rather than a tree nut. It’s native to the Americas, but traveled to Africa, so it was one of the foods many slaves actually recognized, and they knew how to treat it right. During the Civil War the Southern side often carried boiled peanuts with them as a way to get some quick protein, preserved by the salt.
Today, you’ll find boiled peanuts in slow cookers at gas stations, at farmers’ markets, and even occasionally as part of the menu at a restaurant. They’ve come a long way from the classic salt-and-water recipe so much a part of my childhood, and you can now find cajun flavored batches, garlic-and-onion seasoned peanuts, and with a ham hock thrown in, among others.
Like barbecue, there’s lots of argument as to the proper way to boil a peanut. Some say that a raw peanut (one that’s been partially but not fully dehydrated) can be brought back to life with a good soaking before they’re boiled, but others argue that a green nut, just plucked from the ground, is the only way to go. And the only place in the United States that you can find peanuts just plucked from the ground is here in the South. The boiled peanut purist doesn’t like things fancy—they prefer salt-and-water over the fancy beer-and-ham hock or spices route. How long to boil and how soft the nuts should be is also a matter of personal preference. I’ve always delighted in finding immature peanuts in the bag, called “pops”, which are saltier and softer than the others.
The boiled peanut, for me, is wrapped memories of the salted juice running down my fingers and arms, the utter satisfaction of opening the pod, and the adventure of searching for the perfect road trip food.