What’s the Deal with Boiled Peanuts?

What's the deal with one of the most popular homemade southern snack foods of the last 100 years?

Start driving south past the Mason/Dixon line. Continue further into Tennessee and then into Georgia and Florida, and I guarantee you’ll notice something: more and more roadside produce stands. And not just produce stands, but pie stands, micro antique malls, and yes, boiled peanut stands.

On seemingly every highway – not interstate – THAT would be dangerous, mind you – is someone with a couple of stainless steel drums, propane tanks, and bags and bags of peanuts. And Styrofoam cups. Every boiled peanut stand I’ve been to seems to serve their wares out of Styrofoam cups.

According to Frank Comer, President of Wynnton Hardware in Columbus, GA, the practice of boiling peanuts in his family has gone back at least 75 years. As a child, he and his friends would pull the peanuts as the were being combined and harvested, and then take them to the house, where they would boil them in saltwater, dip them out and eat them. From what he reckons, Frank believes boiled peanuts became such a popular southern snack over a hundred years ago because they were cheap, plentiful, and easy to make. The kids could make them in the house while their parents or farmhands were still out working the land.

In Columbus, the tradition continues on at Wynnton Hardware. But first, a history lesson that steps a little further back than Frank Comer’s family:

  • It wasn’t about some cheap, convenient food. A few sources point to the Civil War as the point of creation. That boiled peanuts were born out of necessity. But that’s not the case.
  • Peanuts have origins rooted in South America. They were taken to Africa and cultivated. They eventually made their way to North America on slave ships to the colonies. And yep, people were already boiling them.
  • Boiled peanuts started as a way to use what was harvested when the bean (the inside) was too green to roast. So they can’t help but to be a Southern treat because you can’t really find fresh green peanuts to use north of Virginia.
  • The boiled peanut boom really took off after the turn of the 20th century when the snack started splashing the pages of newspapers in South Carolina.
  • Then, folks started serving them at weddings, starting in South Carolina, then moving into other peanut rich states like Georgia and Florida by the 1920s.

By the 1940s, the boiled peanut had become a full-on Southern staple, found in pretty much every roadside stand and gas station.