March is National Peanut Month
How the lowly legume became one of America’s most iconic foods.
Try this recipe for Colonial Peanut Soup.
Story by Ginger Warder
You’ve probably heard the expression “working for peanuts.” Once considered animal fodder not fit for human consumption, the peanut is now a jewel in the crown of American culture and cuisine, and since March is National Peanut Month, we’re sharing the history of this tiny legume from “soup to nuts” as the saying goes.
From in-the-shell baseball snacks to the ubiquitous kid’s favorite—a gooey peanut butter and jelly sandwich—peanuts are an American diet mainstay. The average American consumes more than six pounds of peanut products every year! Known for their nutritional benefits (they’re loaded with protein, vitamins and minerals), peanuts are consumed worldwide and the U.S. is the largest producer of edible nuts, exporting about a fourth of its yield each year.
Peanuts are grown in 10 states, with Georgia providing the largest share of crops, followed by Texas, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Oklahoma and New Mexico. However, the Virginia peanut, known as “the Cadillac” of peanuts for its large kernels and crunchy texture, is primarily grown in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Virginia: The Birthplace of the American Peanut and Mr. Peanut
It’s no surprise that the first peanuts grown in the New World were planted in Virginia, home of the first permanent settlement. Most likely transported here by slaves from Africa, peanuts at that time were grown for animal feed. It wasn’t until after the Civil War—supposedly when Union soldiers took a liking to them—that the nuts became popular. In the early 20th century, P.T.Barnum began selling hot roasted peanuts to circus crowds, and, after the boll weevil took a toll on Southern cotton crops, they became a significant agricultural crop.
Peanut butter made its debut in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and, in 1916, Planter’s Peanuts held an art contest to create its now-famous mascot, Mr. Peanut. At that time, Suffolk was Virginia’s peanut capital and it was a Suffolk schoolboy, Antonio Gentile, who submitted several sketches of an animated nut and was awarded $5 for the winning entry. A graphic artist added the top hat, monocle and cane and Mr. Peanut has been the “spokes-nut” ever since. In fact, the company has had a plant in Suffolk—still a major region for peanut farming and production—for more than 100 years.
The Inside “Dirt” From a Peanut Farmer
Henry Goodrich, president of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association, is a fifth generation farmer. His great-great grandfather bought the land and built a house in the 1860s. Goodrich currently works about 500 acres, growing wheat, corn, soybeans and peanuts. His grandfather began growing peanuts in 1940 and his great uncle invented the first mechanical peanut digger. Although Goodrich says peanuts are his most expensive and time-consuming crop to grow, they are also his most profitable. I recently talked to Goodrich about his work.
FTUSA: Why not grow peanuts exclusively?
Goodrich: Peanuts (and most other crops) grow better when they are rotated with other crops. I only put peanuts on my best land, and only once every four years on any particular field. That gives me the land to grow around 100 acres of peanuts every year. I grow wheat, corn and soybeans on the other 400 acres.
There are many different varieties of peanuts. What makes Virginia peanuts so special?
There are four “types” of peanuts: Virginia, Runner, Valencia, and Spanish. There are many “varieties” of each type. Think of the “type” of peanut as a rose and the “variety” as a particular color of rose. The Virginia type is the largest and typically is used “in shell” (raw or roasted, like you buy at a baseball game) or for the gourmet market (largest nuts, roasted and canned). These are typically grown in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Runner peanuts are much smaller and are usually used for candy and peanut butter. Runners are grown mainly in the lower southeast (Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Texas). I like to say that you can eat our peanuts roasted with a little salt on them, where you have to put a runner in a candy bar to make it edible.
Is weather is a big challenge to peanut growers?
Peanuts are a tropical crop; they like warm weather. Southeast Virginia is as far north as you can grow them commercially. We plant in late April or early May, as soon as the soil is warm enough to ensure good germination. It takes about five months to mature, so we are harvesting late September or early October. Harvesting is a two-step process. The peanuts are dug and allowed to dry in the field for three to five days before they are harvested. We have to watch the weather closely in the fall because a frost or freeze on peanuts that have just been dug will make them inedible. We usually only have a couple of weeks that are optimum for planting and harvest.
Even though growing peanuts is a risky business, Goodrich is already grooming his son to take over the farm someday. In the meantime, he recommends the salt and pepper variety of gourmet Virginia peanuts: “They go very well with adult beverages!” he says.
Recipe: Colonial Peanut Soup
2 Tablespoons butter or margarine
2 Tablespoons grated onion
1 branch celery, thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 teaspoon salt optional
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons chopped roasted peanuts
Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add onion and celery; sauté for about 5 minutes. Add flour and mix until well blended. Stir in chicken broth and allow it to simmer for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and strain broth. Stir the peanut butter, salt, and lemon juice into the broth until well mixed. Serve hot in cups. Garnish each cup with a teaspoon of chopped peanuts. Makes 6 servings.
—Recipe courtesy Virginia-Carolinas Peanuts
Plan A Trip
If you want to see peanuts “in the wild,” take a drive along Route 460 or Route 58 in Virginia. Wakefield, Suffolk and Southampton are prime peanut country.
Virginia has launched a new Salty Southern Route, the path to Virginia’s pork and peanuts.
Visit the Peanut Museum in Waverly, Virginia, for a history of the nut and exhibits of antique farm equipment used to harvest it.
Taste Virginia peanuts at The Peanut Shop of Colonial Williamsburg where samples of gourmet nuts abound. Try them flavored with everything from salt and pepper to Old Bay seasoning and hot chilies.
Georgia produces almost half of America’s peanuts. Get a first-hand view of the farms, production methods and processing on the annual Georgia Peanut Tour.