Dixie Caviar: American As Apple Pie, Southern As... Well, Boiled Peanuts

Oct 9, 2017

North Carolina is the fifth largest producer of peanuts in America, yielding in upwards of 200,000 tons every year.  Not a single one of them are actually grown in the mountains, but plenty of them make their way to the region nonetheless—where they’re often boiled into a distinctly southern snack sometimes called "Dixie Caviar". BPR News's Davin Eldridge takes a look at the history of boiled peanuts in the South, and their impact on mountain culture.

In America peanuts are kind of a big deal.

According to The American Peanut Council, they’re the twelfth most valuable domestic cash crop, with a farm value of over a billion dollars. America exports an average of 250,000 tons of peanuts every year—so, they’re kind of a big deal everywhere else, too.

But most of peanuts grown in the U.S. actually end up getting eaten here, as each American eats an estimated six pounds of peanut-based products every year. So, whether its peanut butter, a peanut-based candy, or just a regular ol’ peanut, there’s likely an American somewhere who will eat it.

Credit Davin Eldridge

In Western North Carolina, like much of the south, they like they’re peanuts boiled.  Just ask these folks who bought some at a barbecue festival this year in Maggie Valley—some of whom were tourists.

“It actually tastes pretty good.”

“It’s salty.”

“Mmm, that’s really good!”

“It’s different.”

Go just about anywhere in Western North Carolina, and these steamy salted legumes are sure to be a hot-seller. 

“Boiled peanuts are probably our most popular bite,” said Jared Edwards, general manager of the popular Asheville beer pub Wicked Weed. “We get a lot of people from out of town coming in, that want to try them, and they end up loving them.”

He says the bar’s been serving boiled peanuts now for several years, and because they’re so popular, he doesn’t see them finding their way off the menu anytime soon.

This comes as no surprise to Mackensy Lunsford, a food writer for the Asheville Citizen-Times, who says this quintessentially southern snack has made its onto many more menus in the region in ways it never has before.

“When I moved here I was tickled by how prevalent they are. I’ve lived my whole adult life here, and I’ve grown to love boiled peanuts, because I think boiling peanuts really kind of helps express the fact that they are essential a bean. The texture is so creamy and so nice.”

Some of the city’s higher-end haunts now offer boiled peanut hummus, such as The Hyatt Place, while downtown locals can try out some bier-boiled peanuts. She says more and more Avant-garde southern chefs trying to highlight the Appalachian region have been using them as beans, or serving them with bacon.

“I feel like many southerners in fact do seek these things out. You can tell when you’re driving down the road in the country and you see big signs for boiled peanuts. It’s something that people—southerners—make a detour for.”

And 'seek them out', they do. For instance, lots of locals make a detour for 77-year-old Shepard Clarke. Everyone calls call him "Shep", for short. Please note whenever folks with an Appalachian draw, like Shep, say the words "boiled peanuts", it may sound like they're saying bold peanuts, ​or bowl peanuts. 

Shep runs an old produce stand in the north Macon County community Cowee. It’s tucked between the Little Tennessee River, and N.C. 28. Many of the locals have been buying his veggies for years now. It saves them a twenty minute drive to town… And for years now, they’ve also been going to him for their boiled peanut fix.

“We’re the only ones in this area that boils them like this. They always say boiled peanuts pay for your rent. It does, well, we sell a lot of them, and we give a lot away.”

Shep says he’ll go through about fifty pounds of boiled peanuts every week, sometimes more, depending on the week. Each week he says it’s a healthy mix of tourists and locals which goes through every fifty pound batch.

“They’re sun-dried. We just boil them with salt and water. Maybe put a little cup of vinegar in to make them take the salt on.”

For all those on-the-go boiled peanut-lovers unable to find Shep, they can also be found in most of the region’s gas stations. According to Susan Barnes, manager of the Georgia-based Vidalia Peanut Company, the boiled peanut business is good… As long as business is southern-friendly.

“Southern cuisine is taking off. We’ve discovered our parameters for boiled peanuts are in the south. You don’t go further than North Carolina—they don’t like them. You don’t go west of the Mississippi—they don’t like them. I have repeat customers call and order them from me. We have very loyal customers.”

According to southern food historian Rick McDaniel, people have been boiling peanuts to sell or eat now for centuries.

“It’s always been the snack we know it today. The only thing that’s changed over the years is they started salting the water when they boil them. A boiled peanut that you get off a roadside stand this afternoon is exactly the same as what they had in the 1700s.”

He says produce stands like Shep’s are part of a rich tradition in the mountains. They date back to the post-war South, when roadside shops were all that many had, and peanuts were often all that was available.

“They go back forever. It’s one of those things that they’ve been around for so long, no one remembers when they weren’t around. What a lot of people don’t realize is the Civil War ended between April and May of 1865-too late to get a crop in. There was a lot of famine in the South. The agricultural part of the economy was in shambles. People would eat whatever they could.”

Fast-forward to today, and the boiled peanut seems to be playing essentially the same role—it’s a hearty, affordable crop, grown only in Dixie—one that Appalachians have always been able to count on. For BPR News I’m Davin Eldridge.