Boiled peanuts: An older Lowcountry in a nutshell

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comAugust 20, 2013 

Not everyone understands the boiled peanut, or why it means so much to the Lowcountry.

Every now and then, a little glimmer of hope sneaks out from behind the guard gates to let us know that this is still the Lowcountry.

Saturday's celebration of the boiled peanut in Bluffton sounds as sweet as a 9.9 Evinrude.

It's like a modern tip of a John Deere cap to a slower, less gussied up Lowcountry, when life seemed to have fewer ingredients.

On paper, boiled peanuts consist of only three things: peanuts, water and salt.

But in reality, the boiled peanut is much more.

"They seem to occupy a space between snack food and a habit, like chewing tobacco," says "The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook."

Charleston's Matt and Ted Lee ought to know. They built a culinary empire off the notion that people far from the pluff mud of home would inhale real boiled peanuts. They were living in New York City, sporting degrees from Harvard and Amherst, when their mail-order business became the cosmic version of the roadside stands and poor little boys of home hawking boiled peanuts.

I was introduced to boiled peanuts by Delmar Rivers at The Jasper County News, a weekly newspaper in Ridgeland that his family owned.

On Friday afternoons during football season, Delmar would ease over to the Piggly Wiggly in his red Ford pickup truck. Henry Torres Sr. would have a tall, wooden-slat bushel basket of green peanuts set aside for him.

Poor Delmar had to explain many of the finer things in life to me. No, green peanuts are not green. They are "green" because they're fresh out of the dirt and haven't been roasted.

Delmar would then light up the propane cooker out back. We reacted like Pavlov's dog to the hiss and roar. We knew what this Epicurean rig of propane tank, metal milk crate and stock pot always meant good things: Frogmore stew, fried fish, boiled crab, steamed oysters, fried turkey, boiled peanuts -- and the slow fun of watching pots.

The Lee brothers say the steam from boiling peanuts smells like "hay, sweet potatoes and tea."

And the finished product tastes like a poor man's oyster.

The soggy Valencia peanuts were still warm, salty and sweet when Delmar wrapped them in small brown paper bags. His contribution was always the first thing to sell out at the football concession stand.

People loved them because they're good, but also because the boiled peanut is more than a cross between a snack food and a habit.

They represent a way of life. Slurping down a boiled peanut is like taking a gulp of Chechessee Creek, with its sunsets, ebb tides, john boats and crab pots.

The boiled peanut represents a time in the Lowcountry when people couldn't afford to buy their good times, so they made them.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

IF YOU GO

The second annual Boiled Peanut Festival will be from 2 to 8 p.m. Saturdayon Calhoun Street in Old Town Bluffton. The centerpiece of the festival is the boiled peanut cook-off, but this year the festival has expanded to include a boiled peanut eating contest, food vendors and music by Tom Hall & The Plowboys.

Details: blufftonboilers.com

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