Nuts and the holidays go hand and hand. If you aren’t figuring out what to do with the 10-pound bag of pecans from your aunt in the Valley, you’re breaking your back clearing the buggers out of your driveway. For me, Christmas morning was always capped off by the ubiquitous walnut-and-orange combo stuffed at the bottom of my stocking — a holdover, no doubt, of times gone by, but quickly forgotten and put aside by 5-year-old me amidst more chocolatey Santa goodies. I suppose back in the day, nuts were a special treat — a symbol of the harvest bounty and all that. December wouldn’t be December without a giant bowl of Brazil nuts and a five-and-dime nutcracker littering the coffee table. And let’s not forget THE nutcracker — that bizarre, dancing devil with the mocking beard and the clenched jaw that jetés his way across the stage of your local municipal auditorium every year.
However, if you’ve ever actually smelled a chestnut roasting on an open fire, you might not be so psyched about holiday nut fare. I know lots of people dig chestnuts, but to me, they smell like a cross between a dirty gym sock and burning tar. That’s why I am asking you to consider the boiled peanut as a yuletide alternative. (Now, technically, a peanut isn’t really a nut, it’s actually a legume, but for my purposes it will do.)
What is a boiled peanut, you ask? If you’ve ever barreled your way along the eastern seaboard between Virginia and Florida, then you’re familiar with the roadside stands that litter the highway touting “Fresh Boiled Peanuts” and “Hot Goobers Here.” A southern delicacy, a boiled peanut is created by putting raw, unshelled peanuts in salted water and boiling them for a very, very, very long time.
A boiled peanut is different from its roasted sibling. It’s moist. It’s salty. It’s squishy. And it is absolutely delicious. Just suck the peanut and its brine right out of the shell and enjoy. Some people think they are disgusting, but I guarantee those that turn up their noses have never actually tasted one. My husband, who grew up as somewhat of a picky eater, refused to even try one for years. When he finally got a taste of the roadside variety on a trip to my hometown in the Carolinas, we had to stop at every peddler we saw thereafter just to feed his obsession.
Ted Lee and his brother Matt were preteens transplanted from New York to Charleston when they first tried a goober. “We were at the old ballpark in Charleston with our dad, and there were a few guys selling them,” remembers Ted. He and his brother took one look and thought, “What are these?” But once they cracked a few open, they were sold. “I remember liking them instantly,” recalls Ted. “We both thought ‘Oh my god, this is so good. It’s out of control.’” Their dad liked them so much he didn’t want to wait to go back to the ballpark, so he found a place that sourced the raw peanuts and began boiling them most Sunday nights as a family treat.
Years later, when the boys returned to New York City to make it on their own, they got a hankering for a taste of their adopted home. After chasing down raw peanuts in the Bronx, they boiled up a batch and thought maybe they were onto something. Armed with Ziploc bags of boiled peanuts, they got turned away at restaurant after restaurant by people who thought they were insane trying to sell something so slimy and gross.
A food writer at The New York Times finally got it and did a little write up on the boys and their boiled wares. The rest is history. They’ve been offering their homegrown product (as well as other Southern pantry staples) since 1994 via the Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, and now you can find a recipe for Boiled Peanut and Sorghum Swirl Ice Cream in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook.
The holidays are the prime selling season for boiled peanuts. “Sixty percent of our business is geared around Christmas,” says Ted. “It’s the most boiled-peanut-tastic time that we go through.”
Ted finds that Southerners (or would-be Southerners) like to give the snack as a gift. “I understand the hesitation … the wetness, the mushiness. But I’m amazed how many people call up who are not from the South but tasted a boiled peanut once on a business trip and loved them,” he effuses. “It’s not just a Southern thing, either. Asians and Africans have been boiling peanuts for centuries, ever since they brought peanuts from South America 400 years ago.”
I know I’m biased, but I find the flavor and warmth of the boiled peanut to be perfect for the holidays. In my youth we used to buy them at the hardware store in small brown paper bags. Not so lucky here, though. “Fifteen years ago, who would have thought you’d be able to find edamame in the freezer section of any grocery store?” Ted says. “That’s kind of our dream for boiled peanuts.”
That said … raw, unroasted peanuts certainly aren’t hard to come by. According to the Texas Peanut Board’s website, ”Texas now has more then 350,000 planted acres — making us the nation’s second-largest peanut-producing state.” Apparently, the Texas economy benefits by up to $1 billion annually from the peanut industry, so take a chance and keep it real this season. I mean, come on … when was the last time you saw a walnut grove in the Lone Star State? Go home for the holidays with your wet nuts in hand. •
Simple Boiled Peanuts
5 pounds raw, unshelled peanuts, washed
1 cup salt
Water to cover
Combine ingredients in pot and bring to boil. Boil for three hours. Taste. Boil and cook until desired consistency. Add salt to taste.