By Audrey Stallsmith
Sitting by the roadside on a summer's day,
Chatting with my mess-mates, passing time away,
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees,
Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas!
Southern Folk Song
My Border Collie must be able to smell peanuts a mile away. I never get to consume an entire handful myself. I will have barely crunched into the first one before the dog materializes at my side, her suffering eyes imploring me to share.
There is only one other food—chocolate—for which she feels a similar passion. And, since she isn’t supposed to have that, I usually give in and toss her some of the goober peas.
Peanut plants are actually related to--and look very similar to--peas, which is how they received their famous nickname. Officially known as arachnis (“without branch”) hypogaea (“underground”), the peanut is also called earth nut, ground nut, jack nut, manila nut, and monkey nut, as well as pindar or pinda. Pindar and goober are both African terms, the latter derived from the Congo word for peanut—nguba.
The plant actually originated in South America, however, and has been found in ancient Incan tombs. It was eventually cultivated as far north as Mexico. Spanish explorers “discovered” it there, and introduced peanuts to Europe, from where they spread to Asia and Africa.
Being a cheap source of protein, they proved very popular in underdeveloped countries. So it was, ironically enough, African slaves who carried peanuts back to the New World and planted them in the North American South.
Being labor-intensive to cultivate and clean, they didn’t prove immediately popular. But “goober peas” came into their own during the Civil War, when soldiers on both sides made use of the easily portable source of energy. Barnum’s circus began offering hot roasted peanuts in 1870, and the treat quickly caught on in ballparks and cinemas.
We can tell that the “peas” still enjoyed a somewhat low-class reputation, since the cheap seats in the balcony became known as “the peanut gallery.” And, in Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl, Tom is described as having “not lost his early relish for this sort of refreshment, though he seldom indulged his passion nowadays, because peanuts were considered vulgar.”
In 1895, however, Dr. Kellogg--the same health food “nut” who introduced cereals—reportedly patented a process for preparing nut meal that eventually led to the popularization of peanut butter. And we’ve all heard how, when southern cotton crops began to suffer from the boll weevil, George Washington Carver discovered 300 uses for the peanut.
The plant had the advantage that, like other legumes, it restores nitrogen to nutrient-depleted soil. And machines had just been developed to assist in the sowing, harvesting, and cleaning that had once proved so arduous.
Growing about twelve to eighteen inches tall, the peanut sports yellow self-pollinating flowers. After those blooms have dropped, stems called “pegs” elongate from the bases of the flowers’ ovaries and bury themselves in the earth to produce their underground “pods.” Since the annual plant requires five months of warm weather, it is generally grown in hotter climates.
Although India and China produce the most, they also consume the majority of their crops themselves as peanut oil. So the U. S. is still the biggest exporter of peanuts, which are also an important cash crop in several South American and African countries.
“Bunch” plants grow upright, but the lower “runner” types are proving more popular with U. S. farmers. Generally, the smaller, rounder Spanish peanuts are used in butters while the larger, oval Virginia or Valencia types are eaten whole—the latter variety being mostly grown in New Mexico.
Though most of us love peanuts, they can be a horror to those few people who are severely allergic to them. Even a small amount can cause anaphylactic shock and death. On the other hand, peanuts can help person suffering from hemophilia, since they are supposed to reduce the hermorrhaging associated with that disease.
Goober peas are healthy in many other ways, as well. Being related to soybeans, they offer many of the same estrogenic benefits, and may help prevent hormone-dependent cancers. And they contain, especially in their papery red skins, the same heart-protecting resveratrol more famously found in wine and red grapes. They are also a source of the monounsaturated fat that lowers blood cholesterol. And we all know that snacking on a few nuts can slake the appetite, so we feel less desire for other fatty foods.
From the fact that “peanut” has become a term of affection, I think we can assume that few despise this once lowly “munchable” anymore. In fact, since it’s now mid-afternoon, maybe I should sneak out to the kitchen and grab a handful to keep me going until suppertime. Just don’t tell the dog!
Plant plate is from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.