oiled peanuts demand a level of
commitment that most other
foods do not. They belong to the
classification “total-immersion
cuisine,” along with blue crabs, watermelon
slices, oysters on the half-shell and corn on
the cob. To eat these foods is to wrest your
prey from its natural protection, to sully
hands, face and quite often, your shirt.
The boiled peanut is perhaps the least widely
loved of its classification, and it tends to stir
passionate levels of either ardor or disgust. To
the uninitiated, a plastic bag full of damp
peanuts can seem like a mistake. Once they
crush that still-crunchy shell between the
thumb and forefinger and fish out the soft,
juicy bean inside, they find themselves firmly
on one side of the boiled peanut divide.
For fans, eating a boiled peanut after a long
time going without, is to scratch a culinary
itch that nothing else can reach. The combination of the mild, salty juice and the almost
chewy bean with its muted nuttiness, released
from damp confinement, is incomparable. To
share this love is to enjoy a true kinship, especially if you live outside the coastal plain
where peanuts grow and boiled peanut stands
thrive. At least once in our 12 years together
my converted-Southerner husband’s affinity
for the soft legume has helped smooth the
sometimes-bumpy road of matrimony.
This bond between peanut lovers helps drive
sales for Jack and Nancy Huestess, who sell
green boiled peanuts from July to October at
their stand in the Bladen County crossroads
of Abbotsburg.
“When it’s peanut season, you start thinking
about your friends,” says Huestess. “If you’ve
got a friend who likes boiled peanuts you
can’t do nothing better for them.”
I spent an afternoon at the Huestess’ peanut
stand in October last year, listening as every
driver who followed the sandy, semi-circular
path drive to their wooden stand swore by
their wares. What makes fresh boiled peanuts
from a roadside stand like Jack’s better than
those you scoop out of a convenience store
crock in the winter or, if you must, eat from a
can, is that Jack’s peanuts have never been
dried. Peanuts bound for storage or processing
must be dried to keep from spoiling. Jack’s
peanuts go almost directly from the fields to a
salty simmer.
“The secret to a great boiled peanut is not
here,” Jack says, pointing to a simmering tank
the size of pig cooker. “It’s out there.”
Out there, about 100 feet away, a half-dozen
women sit on metal folding chairs pulling the
peanuts by hand from piles of dirty, twisted
vines. Hand picking ensures that the legumes
are not torn, bruised or dirtied in their shells.
This makes for more edible peanuts and less
waste. The pickers can toss out bad nuts before
they make it into the pot.
“It would be cheaper to do it by machine,”
Jack says. “But it’s worth it to have people
come in and buy and come back.”
Those who live in peanut country know that
the peanuts change with the season. In midsummer, smaller, more tender beans that have
plenty of room in their shells prevail. Just an
hour or two of simmering turns them silky soft
inside their pods. Salty juice accumulates
inside the shell, and you can eat the little
legumes as if they were tiny oysters. By fall, the
fields offer more mature peanuts that retain a
toothsome texture reminiscent of a cooked
garbanzo bean even after cooking overnight.
The other secret to a tasty boiled peanut is a
great deal of salt. Jack says he uses no recipe,
and he won’t hazard a guess at his peanuts’
sodium content. “I wouldn’t want to say how
much salt I use,” he says.
veloped a taste for boiled peanuts almost as
soon as he moved to North Carolina.
His affinity was a blessing to us one gray
Sunday afternoon while we were on our way to
a job interview. The job was for me and it
would require us to move from our home in
downtown Wilmington, a prospect I did not
relish. But it was in Raleigh, where he was
working, and moving would mean an end to
his brutal commute. I was stewing.
Heading west on Interstate 40 through
Pender County, he stopped at a convenience
store and returned to the car with a warm
Styrofoam cup full of boiled peanuts. It was
winter, so the peanuts weren’t fresh.
Nonetheless, they were salty and soft and
reminiscent of long drives in the country I
used to take with my mother. We rode in silence for a while, and I pondered my luck at
finding a California-born, Maryland-raised
man who fell in love not only with me and
the South and Tar Heel basketball but also
with peanuts cooked to a near mush.
Needless to say we moved to Raleigh. eP
Amber Nimocks is the former food editor of
The News & Observer, where her monthly
wine column “Let It Pour” appears, and currently works as a producer on WUNC-FM’s
“The State of Things.”
Most of the traffic on that late October day is
local—a deer hunter who has been in the
woods all morning, the mailman coming by
for a gallon of peanuts for his pastor. One exception is the driver of an SUV with Virginia
plates that pulls up and buys several gallons.
He’s been coming to this stand for years, on
his way between Virginia and Bald Head
Island, he says. It’s worth the detour to take
them back home and share, he says.
On occasion, I’ve tried to persuade those raised
solely on roasted peanuts to open their minds.
I point out that they eat corn in more than one
incarnation—fresh and gently cooked or dried
and heated in oil as popcorn. Fortunately, my
husband didn’t take much persuading. He deEDIBLE PIEDMONT | SUMMER 2009