“Goober Peas”: The Southern Delicacy of Boiled Peanuts

Photo: A boy preparing boiled peanuts in Helen, Georgia, c. 1974. Stephenson, Al, Photographer (NARA record: 8464474) - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Photo: A boy preparing boiled peanuts in Helen, Georgia, c. 1974.
Stephenson, Al, Photographer (NARA record: 8464474) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Being able to write for a living about the mountains of Appalachia is nothing short than a dream come true and there’s certainly no place I desire to spend the remainder of my days more than the hills and ‘hollers’ of home.

With this being said, this past week our family was in need of a good recharge and rejuvenation and we figured that some sunny warm air might do us a lot of good — three days later, we packed up the car and pointed it toward the South Carolina coast.

In an effort to slowdown and enjoy the ride, somewhere south of Columbia, we exited Interstate 26, choosing instead the slower paced and more enjoyable ride afforded by the paralleling US Route 176, which offered the sights and sounds of real Carolina in a way no Interstate highway can match.

The decision was not one I regret, as somewhere in Calhoun County the glimpse of a roadside vender instantly reminded me of a southern delicacy I had long forgotten even existed: Boiled Peanuts.

Perhaps your Appalachian family boiled peanuts each year, but where I come peanuts were only consumed roasted, but more often than not they were fed to hogs as filler food.

The practice of boiling peanuts in salty water then eating them is a southern practice that dates back to the 1800s and is believed to have been brought to the Southland, particularly South Carolina, by slaves from West Africa who ate boiled groundnuts as a regular part of their diet.

By the early 1900s, entire families and communities would come together and take unsold or surplus peanuts and prepare them for boil.  Much like fish fries, these events would lend themselves to serve as a social event in the South and would eventually become a symbol of Southern culture and cuisine.

The sight of the roadside vender instantly had me locking up the brakes of the vehicle and quickly turning into the dirt parking lot and coming to a stop just in front of the handmade sign proclaiming, “Boiled Peanuts”.

$4 later and I was holding a bag of them, lecturing my children on this unknown and in their eyes somewhat disgusting sight of boiled peanuts.

“They’re too slimy and mushy,” said my daughter Grace, while my other daughter Ann instantly fell in love with the salty juice locked away inside the shell.

“These are boiled peanuts,” I told them, “and they’re a treat in the Deep South” I told my daughters, as we drove toward Charleston.

Though it is true that they are a treat in the South, in the early years of the food they were known throughout the south as “Goober Peas” instead of boiled peanuts.

One of the most widely known Confederate songs of the Civil War was “Goober Peas” and as one soldier reminisced after the war, “The melody suited a soldier and in his gayest mood he roared out ‘Peas, Peas, Peas’ with a gusto that was charming.

The lyrics went like this:
Sitting by the roadside on a summer day,
Chatting with my messmates passing time away,
Lying in the shadow underneath the trees,
Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!
PEAS, PEAS, PEAS, Eating Goober PEAS!

A 1925 account from Orangeburg, South Carolina, mentions boys selling goober peas as a snack for five cents per bag. Boiling and canning the peanuts also preserved the food so that it could be an enjoyable snack out of season.

Raw peanuts in the shall are traditionally used to make boiled peanuts and are placed into a large pot of very heavily salted water and boiled. This can be done inside on the stove or outside on a propane burner or fire pit for a larger volume. Depending on the locality, some cooks use rock salt or standard table salt, or both. The boil can go on from four to seven hours or more, depending on quantity and the age of the peanut (green peanuts cook faster and tend to be better tasting), and the boilings will most often be of several gallons of water. Flavorings such as ham hocks, hot sauce, Cajun seasonings or beer can be added to the boil. An alternative method for dried raw mature peanuts is to re-hydrate them by soaking overnight in water, after which they can be cooked in the conventional manner.

The resulting food is a very soft peanut in the shell, invariably quite salty. The softened peanuts are easy to open. Often small, immature peanuts (called “pops”) are included, which have even softer shells and can be eaten in entirety. These tend to absorb more salt than the larger ones.

Though boiled peanuts are largely unknown in the United States outside of the South, some studies have revealed that they may very well contain certain health benefits that unboiled peanuts may lack: For starters, the process of boiling peanuts draws antioxidants from the shells, leaving them with four times the antioxidants of raw or roasted peanuts.

Boiled peanuts have also been studied as a potential way to treat people with peanut allergies since boiling peanuts denatures proteins that trigger allergic reactions. In one study, boiled peanuts were given in increasing amounts to four patients over time. Some, but not all, patients were able to start eating raw peanuts. Use of boiled peanuts as a treatment method is not yet recommended.

If you’re not allergic to peanuts, the next time you head to the Southland, perhaps it would do you good to get off the Interstate and into the dirt lot of a roadside boiled peanuts vender!

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