Despite what certain people may tell you, boiled peanuts do not come from the May River.
Years ago, Bluffton artist Pierce Giltner set up a sign in his outdoor studio for "Pearl's Bald Peanuts," advertising them as fresh from the river. He was having a little fun, of course. But a tourist couple did come up and earnestly inquire about the river nuts. So he spun a yarn about daughter (Pearl) picking them at the sandbar.
To the outsider, the story could make perfect sense. A wet, soggy peanut with a salty flavor. Sure, they could be plucked from the sea like oysters.
In reality, they're just what they claim to be -- a peanut that's boiled. But then again, there's so much more to it than just that.
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The inaugural Lowcountry Boiled Peanut Cook-off will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Bluffton Farmers Market. Once and for all, the best boiled peanut in Bluffton will be determined. And, it's a chance for the boiled peanut newbie to figure out this Southern delicacy.
When you get down to it, the boiled peanut is rather simple. It starts with a freshly harvested peanut, raw and uncooked. These green peanuts, as they're called, are then thrown into a boiling pot of salted water. The results are an easily crackable shell and a soft peanut inside.
The history of the boiled peanut is a bit vague but most signs point to the Civil War-era South when generals were seeking ways to feed their hungry troops. The protein-rich peanuts soon were distributed and the soldiers roasted or boiled them, according to the Smithsonian magazine.
The treat has remained primarily in the South ever since. In 2006, Gov. Mark Sanford signed a bill making boiled peanuts the official snack food of South Carolina.
Native South Carolinians like Giltner grew up eating the snack. But it wasn't until about five years ago that he started cooking them himself. He's perfected the right balance of spice to make his the best in Bluffton (or so he says).
To others, it was an acquired taste. May River Grill chef Charlie Sternburgh moved from Michigan to the Lowcountry about 30 years ago. The first time he tried a boiled peanut he turned up his nose.
"I was a dry roasted peanut guy," he said. "It took me a while to work up a taste to them. But once I did I couldn't stop eating them."
He boiled his first batch last year. He only makes them on special occasions, claiming fresh peanuts from farmers markets is the key.
"The first batch didn't come out too well," he said. "The second came out pretty good. The third was even better. Some people were saying they're the best they've had."
Well, they can't all be the best. That's for the cook-off to decide.
A RECIPE FOR BOILED PEANUTS
Daufuskie Island native Sallie Ann Robinson gives a simple recipe for boiled peanuts in her cookbook, "Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way."
She describes childhood memories of growing peanuts on the island: "We dried much of the crop, saving them for winter munching. The rest we boiled 'green,' fresh from the warm, summer soil. We cooked them outside in a big pot of salty water over a slow fire in the August heat."
2 pounds green peanuts in shells (look in the produce section in late summer)
1/2 cup salt
6-8 quarts water
Wash the peanuts thoroughly in hot water. Dissolve the salt in a big stew pot, three-quarters full with water. Add the washed peanuts, still in shells, and boil until done. That can be one to three hours, depending on how fresh the peanuts are and how soft you like them. Sample often. Once the peanuts are cooked to your liking, allow them to sit in the water as it cools for 30 minutes or longer to absorb the salty flavor. Serve hot or cold in a bowl or bag with a beverage of your choice and a good ball game or sunset to watch as you shell and eat them.