SRQ Magazine | April 2017
In At the Table
The scent of boiled peanuts wafted through the air and I followed. Go out past Bowlee’s Creek, they said, up in Whitfield. If you want the real thing, that’s where you’ll find them—good old-fashioned boiled peanuts like one would find in the days of old, served still-simmering in paper cones by the selfsame hands that did the boiling. Go out past Bowlee’s Creek and that’s where you’ll find him, they said, peddling his trade in parking lots and side streets, over cracked asphalt and gravel roads—one of the last purveyors of an honorable trade that met an undignified end at the altar of modern convenience. I see him in my mind’s eye—a battered old man next to an equally battered truck, his eyes set in an enduring squint from a life under the Florida sun, skin like leather and a barking inflection that trails off at each word to a rasping whistle. I see him easily in my mind’s eye, but never in the flesh.
Ground nuts. Ground peas. Pindars. Goobers. The peanut has known many names in its time as a Southern staple, but the history of boiled peanuts remains something of a mystery. The default explanation for any Southern delicacy left unexplained is to blame the Civil War and the iconic starving soldier who, desperate for food, discovers some delicious but humble new savior for him and his men, like some nutritional nativity where all the inns are full but here’s a peanut. Such is the common recounting for the advent of boiled peanuts, but food historian Robert Moss disagrees, citing the narrative as one full of some of the “most pernicious myths that are rampant in popular histories of Southern food.” Namely, that the Civil War is responsible for everything and “nothing exists until white people discover it.” Indigenous to South America, the peanut took a rather arduous route to more northern shores. Portuguese colonists in Brazil first brought the little goobers to Africa, where they closely resembled the native ground nuts and spread wide across the continent. High in nutrition and easy to store, the peanut only made its ignominious return to the western hemisphere and the shores of the southern United States alongside shackled slaves on the Middle Passage. Records from the American colonies show slaves would then maintain small plots of peanuts—when allowed—to supplement their rations. While records do not mention boiling specifically until the mid-1800s, peanuts were long a regular addition to soups and stews. White Southerners “discovered” the peanut shortly after and made wide use of it long before the Civil War.
Rolling over Bowlee’s Creek, my instructions are unclear. I’m looking for a gas station, a bait shop, a drive-in church—and somewhere a man and his truck and a small piece of Old Florida history. My instructions are unclear, but at the foot of the bridge, in the parking lot of a Shell station, a battered metal shack with a hand-made sign makes promises of fresh something and I make an irresponsible left turn across traffic and into the lot. I’m optimistic. And stupid.
There are no home-made boiled peanuts at the Shell or at the bait shop in the parking lot. They know nothing of the man I seek. There are none when I turn to the Whitfield back roads. None at the palisade of fallen tree limbs barring the path nor when the street is closed as gallons of water gush from the gutters, watched by myself and a cadre of construction workers looking just as confused. None as I drive through a trailer park where somebody gave up on naming the streets and just started listing states in the Union. To the left, a hand-painted sign proclaims “This is God’s House,” but at this point I’m just looking for the peanut house. An aimless drive brings me to the Bayshore Garden and Recreation Center, where inside a vast and empty hall two women—one short and smiling, the other tall and cursing—attempt to hang a sheet of white paper over an unfinished wall. They send me back to a gas station near Bowlee’s Creek, where I blurt the whole day’s story to the poor girl behind the counter. Her reaction is only natural, to recoil from the crazy and point wordlessly at the cans of boiled peanuts arranged on a nearby shelf.
Dejected, in shame and degradation, I wander into the Banana Factory, where regulars congregate at three in the afternoon and fill the rafters with smoke and loose talk. I meet a man named Frank. If you want the best boiled peanuts around, he tells me, you need to go out towards Myakka City on State Road 71. Look for the new fire station. And look for a man on the corner selling peanuts.
On long drives, the mind can wander. “Boiled peanuts would be nice,” it says, as I wend down Fruitville Road towards Myakka City Fire Station #2 with the sun out and windows down. In another time, these empty embankments on either side would be populated by roadside vendors and a simple stop would sate the stomach. Today, a gas station fills a much similar function, but it just isn’t the same. Something human is lost. Distinctly Southern, boiled peanuts could never have been said to be a national trend, perhaps explaining the lack of a cultural bulwark sufficient to stave off the progression of time. Again and again, Southerners have found themselves explaining the virtue of boiled peanuts to northern visitors blissfully unaware of their longitudinal misfortune. While roasted peanuts and peanut oil spread far across the country, boiling remained something the South could call its own.
The answer why is rather simple and springs more from practicality than anything else. A burrowing plant, peanut vines thrive above the ground but the fruit itself develops in pods underground and early Southern farmers would do their best not to harvest early, but sometimes it would happen and they’d be left with unripe, “green” peanuts. High in moisture content, these green peanuts would spoil easily and not bake well, but black farmers discovered early that they ended up perfect for boiling; records kept by a captured Union soldier escaping through South Carolina mention receiving boiled peanuts from freed men along the way. With such timely and geographically specific origins, boiled peanuts likely began as a harvest season treat with no reason or ability to exist north of peanut-growing land for lack of fresh green peanuts. But they still have reason to exist here.
I pull into Fire Station #2 under blue skies, surrounded by rolling green fields. The station gleams in the daylight, seemingly unused. The parking lot sits largely empty. Peeking my head into the garage, a young, barefaced firefighter named Eddie rounds the corner. We shake hands. I ask about peanuts. Eddie knows the man I’m after—the man with the dog who sells peanuts on the side of the road. His name is Peanut Andy, Eddie says. And Peanut Andy died more than a year ago.
Back on the road, the skies decidedly greyer and the sun noticeably dimmer, the quest seems lost. Eddie offered no further leads, only stories of a youth when boiled peanut vendors lined Fruitville Road. He still sees the occasional phantom—a lone merchant posted on some corner somewhere with boiled peanuts for sale—but nothing regular. Nothing like the old days. Stymied and stumped, the only available path is surrender. But then, as I careen toward the edge of desperation and begin showing signs of a dangerous tantrum in a crowded office, a coworker stops to gently ask, “Have you tried Harry’s?” No. I had not tried Harry’s.
Nestled away on Anna Maria Island (quite far from Bowlee’s Creek, I might add), Jan and Taylor Labriola keep the Southern tradition alive with Harry’s Grill and Bistro, a laid-back eatery with serious Southern vibes and more boiled peanuts than the kind of person who still shakes sticks at things could shake said sticks at. You won’t find them on the menu, but scrawl on the chalkboard offers boiled peanuts of both the Hot Ass and Reg-La Ass variety and regulars know them well.
“We’re trying to keep it old school,” says Jan. Born in Mississippi but raised in Texas, she’s well aware of both the virtues of boiled peanuts and their distinct lack when absent. She recalls trips from Texas to Florida, driving down I-20 with the cruise control on and the top down, eating boiled peanuts along the way and throwing the shells into the rushing wind overhead. “You started getting excited when you see those little signs on the side of the road,” she says. Gas stations are convenient, she agrees, “but it takes away from how it used to be.”
At Harry’s, there’s no real secret to the boiled peanuts beyond salt, cayenne and some good old-fashioned timing (“It’s not rocket science,” Jan says.), but the results speak for themselves. Boiled peanuts may not be as popular as they once were, but seeing the way locals congregate for what Harry’s has to offer gives Jan confidence that this way of life will remain for at least a while longer. “That’s what’s so cool about Florida,” she says. “They really got it figured out.”