If you drive far enough down Interstate 75 you'll see them, nestled amid advertisements for peaches, pecans, and trucker spas. "Stop here for boiled peanuts," the signs command. In response, some passers-by make a beeline for the nearest exit. Others step on the gas.
John Tragesser would fall into the latter camp. "I think they're gross," he says bluntly. "They're not like peanuts. They're more like pinto beans."
Tragesser's father owns Horn of Plenty, a produce depot and restaurant on Middlebrook Pike. It's one of a handful of boiled peanut retailers here in Knoxville, and despite his own distrust of the soggy nuts, Tragesser says they're best sellers at the store.
"I'm from Memphis, and I hadn't even heard of boiled peanuts until I came here," he says. "I've asked some of the people who buy them why they like them so much, and it's mostly people who grew up eating them. They're really big in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida."
But if nostalgia were all that drove us to eat what we eat, more adults would have cravings for mud pies and the ends of erasers. There must be more to boiled peanuts than skeptics like Tragesser give them credit for.
Historically, whenever there is a surplus of a particular foodstuff, its culinary horizons are forced to expand. Kind of like the weeks after Thanksgiving, when leftover-turkey sandwiches begin yielding to more "creative" turkey entrees like turkey quesadillas.
Thankfully, peanuts are versatile. There's peanut butter, peanut brittle, roasted peanuts, fried peanuts, peanut oil—all things considered, the boiled peanut concept isn't much of a stretch. In the United States, peanut boils—the Southern equivalent of a fish fry—became popular in the 19th century as a way to make the most of unsold peanut crops while giving the community an excuse to gather and socialize.
The recipe for these "goober peas," as they're affectionately nicknamed, is fairly simple: Boil semi-mature, or "green," peanuts in a saltwater brine for several hours until the shells are soft and the nuts are al dente. Sometimes flavorings, such as ham hocks, Cajun seasonings, or beer are added to the boil.
The result is a salty snack that can be slurped straight from the shell and tastes like the beach-bum cousin of a black-eyed pea. Variations on the boiled peanut theme can be found around the world. They're hawked by street vendors in several countries, including India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Nigeria, and they're a popular accompaniment to beer in China and Vietnam.
Here in the States the nuts are a Southern delicacy—the edamame of the South, if you will—that some people can't get enough of. For others, it's an acquired taste that they never quite manage to acquire.
"I've lived in the South all my life and boiled peanuts are not something I would go out and spend money on," says Dennis Fox of the Fruit and Berry Patch, a pick-your-own farm in Halls that specializes in all things homemade and homegrown. There are apples sold by the bushel, alfalfa honey, and the Patch's famous fried pies, but boiled peanuts are conspicuously absent from his store.
"It's not really an East Tennessee thing," he explains. "You go further south and you'll see signs along the side of the road for boiled peanuts, but I don't know that I've ever seen boiled peanuts advertised north of Chattanooga."
Fox has a point: The peanut, a subtropical crop that needs relatively warm growing conditions, is significantly more abundant in states below us—Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Tennessee is a bit too far north to be a major player in the peanut industry; our state doesn't have a peanut grower's association, and it didn't get an invite to join the Southern Peanut Farmers Federation. So, in a sense, the boiled peanut is a borrowed tradition.
But that doesn't stop locals from indulging in the nuts as if they were our own. "We sell a lot of them," says Stacy Jones, an employee at Garden Fresh Market on Chapman Highway.
On this unusually balmy November day, the old-fashioned grocery feels like an open-air market, garage doors rolled up to expose the store's myriad locally and regionally grown offerings: rhubarb jam, muscadine cider, Grainger County tomatoes and sugar-cured country ham. Walking into the Market is like taking a step backwards in time, into an era when a dollar could buy an oatmeal whoopee pie and an RC Cola, and a gallon of fresh-churned buttermilk could be had for a fraction of the price it runs today.
In this setting, the sign in the window that reads "Jumbo Boiled Peanuts" doesn't seem out of place. The nuts simmer quietly in stainless steel crock pots near the front of the store, blending in with the rustic Appalachia-themed decor.
But Jones is upfront about that fact that the Market's boiled peanuts, like the majority of those you'll find in East Tennessee, are actually imported by the Vidalia Peanut Company in Vidalia, Ga. The company delivers peanuts, which come previously boiled, seasoned, and frozen in bags, to local businesses every couple weeks. All the retailers have to do is thaw them out and keep them warm.
But it takes more to rob the nuts of their mystique than revealing their geographic origin. They're a phantasmagoric legume, materializing where we least expect them and nowhere to be found where we do. Take roadside boiled peanut stands: They certainly exist, but like rainbows, they're nearly impossible to pin down. Both the Townsend and the Gatlinburg Chambers of Commerce confirm their existence—"They like to set up shop on the stretch of Highway 129 between Townsend and Maryville," the latter notes—but beyond that, the vendors' identities remain shrouded in mystery.
The hunt for boiled peanuts is as likely to lead you into a gas station convenience store, like the Rite Stop Food Mart in the Marathon Station on Dutch Valley Road, as it is to a specialty produce store, like Farm Fresh Produce on Sutherland Avenue.
"I never realized how popular they were, but people just think the world of them," says Mike McKinney, manager of Farm Fresh Produce. He adds with a chuckle, "They'll buy a cup, and you ask them if they want a bag and they say no, that they're going to eat them out of the shell on the way home."
Maybe boiled peanuts' elusiveness is fitting, like a childhood memory that's at once distant and tangible, or an aroma that momentarily transports you to a bygone epoch of your life. We all have our own time machines. For some, they just arrive in the shape of a nut.
ATTENTION HEALTH NUTS
There's preliminary evidence that boiled peanuts may be the Popeye's spinach of the legume family.
A study published last year by the University of Alabama at Huntsville examined the nutritional benefits produced by processing peanuts in different ways—specifically, boiling, dry-roasting and oil-roasting. It concluded that peanuts processed by boiling contain more antioxidants than roasted peanuts, peanut butter, or even peanuts in the raw.
The boiling process appears to draw out isoflavones, powerful antioxidants that may reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, and coronary heart disease. The Alabama study showed that boiled peanuts contain up to four times more isoflavones than their dry- and oil-roasted brethren.
Freak out your Yankee friends by showing up with a pot of these boiled peanuts at the next social function. They're fool-proof to prepare, and whether they're a hit or a bust, at least they're a better conversation-starter than the usual chips-and-salsa or cheese log.
--4 to 5 pounds of green (raw) peanuts in the shell
--4 to 6 quarts of water
--1 cup plain salt
Wash unshelled peanuts thoroughly in cold water until water runs clear. Then soak in cool, clean water for approximately 30 minutes before cooking.
In a large pot, placed soaked peanuts and cover completely with water. Add one cup of salt per gallon of water. Cook, covered, on high heat for four to seven hours. (Note: The cooking time of boiled peanuts varies according to the maturity of the peanuts used and the variety of peanuts. The cooking time for a "freshly pulled" or green peanut is shorter than for a peanut that has been stored for a time.)
Boil the peanuts for about four hours, then taste. Taste again in 10 minutes, both for salt and texture. Keep cooking and tasting until the peanuts reach desired texture. (When fully cooked, the texture of the peanut should be similar to that of a cooked dry pea or bean.)
Remove from heat and drain peanuts after cooking or they will absorb salt and become oversalted. Peanuts may be eaten hot or at room temperature, or chilled in the refrigerator and eaten cold, shelling as you eat them.
—Recipe used with permission from its author, Linda Stradley, and her website whatscookingamerica.net.