Southern Origins: Boiled Peanuts

Southern Origins: Boiled Peanuts
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
Illustration by Jing Li

Nothing says a Southern summer road trip like a cup of warm boiled peanuts procured from a roadside stand (after spying “Boil P-nut” spray-painted on plywood) and enjoyed with the car windows down and the radio up. Sure, they taste great, but their simplicity is also part of their appeal. They’re created using only a few ingredients and possibly the most clear-cut cooking method ever: boiling. 

And yet, as basic and humble as boiled peanuts are, they’re also pretty easy to mess up if you just wing it. Get your water-goober-salt ratio wrong, and you end up with bland, or blast-your-taste-buds-off salty. And flavor is only one aspect. Texture is equally important. Cook ‘em too long, and they’re complete mush. Not long enough, and they retain too much crunch. 

Opinions definitely differ on what constitutes a “good” boiled peanut, and everyone has his own Goldilocks criteria. For this reason, most folks have a tried-and-true source of boiled peanuts, the spot they can trust to give them what they want every time. Or they’ve got a proven recipe for making them at home.

But even a ho-hum boiled peanut can be declared delicious, because for many, just the idea of boiled peanuts has long soaked in a brine of happy memories. That’s what Jaime Thursby believes. He’s the owner of the Alabama Peanut Company in Birmingham, Alabama (which, for the record, turns out objectively good boiled peanuts). Housed in Birmingham’s circa 1907 “Peanut House,” the company uses the antique equipment original to the location’s first peanut business to roast peanuts fresh daily and also offers a wide range of flavored boiled peanuts. Here, Jaime cracks into the beloved Southern snack’s origins and its role in our region’s culture.

What is the history of boiled peanuts and when did they first appear in the American South?

The background is somewhat murky. There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on exactly who first boiled peanuts and when or where they did it. But most agree that the practice of boiling peanuts originated in Africa and was introduced to American Southern culture by slaves, as the South is where the peanut crop flourished. Boiling was a clever and delicious way to enjoy the fresh-harvested or “green” peanuts that were not yet dry enough to roast. Over time, as peanuts became a stable commercial crop in the United States, boiling peanuts grew in popularity all over the South and remains popular today. 

Why have boiled peanuts become such an iconic Southern snack?

I think for most Southerners, boiled peanuts are the ultimate feel-good snack because they remind us of good times: rides through the country, vacations to the beach, long talks with friends, road trips through the mountains, and roaming around county fairs. And of course, trips to Southern college football tailgates always include a stop by a boiled-peanut stand.

What inspired the Alabama Peanut Company to branch out from the classic version of boiled peanuts and do so many flavors?

Four years ago, when we were about to start vending at Birmingham’s The Market at Pepper Place farmers market, we had a few flavors already but were convinced that people wouldn’t buy boiled peanuts at 7 a.m. So, we launched our Bloody Mary and our Salty Dill Pickle boiled peanut flavors. They were a big hit, and we were wrong about people buying boiled peanuts so early in the morning! After we moved operations to Birmingham’s iconic Peanut House in 2018, we decided to roll out our “Flavor of the Day,” where we offered a different version each day of the week. This really helped fuel the success of our brand and business. We currently have more than 100 rotating boiled peanut flavors, all made in-house. 

The Alabama Peanut Company makes and sells both, but which do you prefer: boiled or roasted peanuts? 

For sentimental reasons, I would have to say boiled. After leaving a career in Atlanta, I found myself unemployed, out of money, and I had to move back home to Birmingham and start over. Out of necessity for work and after noticing that there was nowhere to get real boiled peanuts, we opened our first boiled peanut stand in Bluff Park just outside of Birmingham. I guess you could say the boiled peanut actually saved me! It allowed me to reinvent myself and create the career that I love and was meant to do.

Pick up a copy of Wanderlust 2020 for the Sriracha-Lime Boiled Peanut recipe!

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