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Articles / A Beloved Snack with a Side of Sentiment

A Beloved Snack with a Side of Sentiment

Published January 19, 2023

Mark ditches the Impala and heads south for good times and an addictive favorite

Photo: Getty Images

A lifetime ago, before I had children or real jobs, my not-quite-yet wife Karen and I set off for points south with our friends Fred and Sherry. We met at Fred’s parents’ house on Long Island, Karen and I limping down from Somerville in some ’63 Chevy or other (we had a series of them, Impalas and Chevelles, all near junkers), one that needed a quart of oil every fifty miles. Fred’s father took one look at it and said “You’re not driving a thousand miles in that?!”

1963 Chevy Impala. Photo: Getty Images

Well, we had nothing else. Maybe Fred and Sherry’s car was no better, I can’t remember, but Fred’s dad just said, “Take my car,” a late-model Cadillac that none of us would want to be seen dead in. Still: Not only did it run, it ran perfectly, and it was roomy and after all there was no pretending we were not middle-class post-college white kids. In fact en route not a few people commented on what nice wheels we were driving.

We set up the back as if it were a living room, with pillows and snacks, and we listened to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” on the radio about fourteen times a day, and we stopped at a couple of places, and we visited Okracoke, and we wound up at some place near Myrtle Beach where we camped and birdwatched – those skimmers! – and we swam a little. It was April, but warm enough.

One day we drove into Charleston. It was 1976.

We did what tourists do: walked around the harbor, poked into this and that, wound up at the old slave market. (That’s now a museum. I have only been back to Charleston once, and it was so work-focused I have no sense of the city at all.)

Someone yelled, “Balled peanuts! Balled peanuts!”

Of course that’s what it sounded like. The old and semi-toothless guy was standing in front of an aluminum stockpot, set on a burner and emitting steam.

“What’s that?” said one of us.

“Balled peanuts,” he replied. Oh, BOILED peanuts. Not only could we not speak the language, we’d never heard of the food. We bought some; they were fifteen cents, after all.

Life changing.

Photo: Getty Images

As we’ve all been told a thousand times, peanuts are a legume, and as such must be cooked before eating. Northerners eat roasted peanuts; well, everyone eats roasted peanuts – but in the South, boiled peanuts are a thing, and they’re great. They’re easy enough: You boil them, in their shells, in a big pot of water with a lot of salt in it. (Some people eat unsalted peanuts, of course, but I hardly eat unsalted anything.) Do that until they’re very soft, which can take a long time if your peanuts aren’t fresh, and you eat them hot, or warm (or at room temperature, but they’re not as good). You can also use them as an ingredient, like any bean; the shots here are of white rice cooked with white fish with butter, garlic, lemon, and shelled boiled peanuts.

And they’re so good that you start to realize you can eat any shell-beans this way: Boil them in the shell and eat them as a snack. Oh, you now think: Edamame. Right.

Anyway I have been making boiled peanuts for almost fifty years, and I just gave you the recipe, so you can too, but there is a pointer: Although you can start with quite-dried peanuts – you can even start with roasted peanuts – the best thing is green peanuts, fresh from the most recent crop (and available in late fall through the winter), and the difference between “green” and “raw” is that “raw” can be two years old, or as old as they want to be, and “green” are – or should be — fresh.

Of course almost no vendor makes that distinction, so the thing to do is either head to your nearest peanut farm (much easier if you live in the south), or hope for the best. I’ve had pretty good luck buying peanuts from vendors on Canal Street, but many markets (especially those with a large East Asian clientele) sell raw peanuts, and it’s always worth a shot. The worst that happens is that they take four hours to cook. Keep an eye on them.

Road trip, anyone?