What the Shell?

Boiling down cultural differences

By Cynthia Adams

In the 1980s, my Southern daddy introduced my new husband to boiled peanuts. Dad loved “goobers” in all forms but was especially fond of them if they were roasted or boiled.

Don popped one into his mouth, eager to please, despite the off-putting, dishwater gray, stewed peanut hulls dripping with saline wash. Don is from South Africa, where he likes to tell small children they eat bugs and worms, washed down with Rooibos tea. (FYI:  Medicinal Rooibos tastes better than cod liver oil but worse than moonshine.) 

So Don gamely chewed the peanut. “It certainly has texture,” he observed, if a little too brightly. A boarding school–educated man, my husband is nothing if not diplomatic.

Dad frowned. “Lord! You ate the shell!  Spit it out and start over,” he instructed. Don spat and obediently shelled on the second try.

“That improves the taste considerably,” he said, looking much relieved.

Since then, Don hasn’t just embraced boiled peanuts, he has become a defender of the slimy little legume.

Whenever Don spots green peanuts for sale, he does a Snoopy dog happy dance. He doesn’t care what the cost; Don practically runs to the checkout counter. Overjoyed, he boiled up half a bushel this weekend. We stood together over a steaming pot, so eager to test the goobers we both burned our tongues but grinned anyhow.

“Remember when I didn’t know you were supposed to shell them?” Don almost always muses, shaking his head. After gorging ourselves, he sent me several facts gleaned from the Internet. 

“Boiled peanuts have high anti-oxidant value!” he texted as I finished the Sunday paper.

“Good to know!” I yelled towards his office.

“In Ghana and Nigeria, boiled peanuts are eaten as street food,” he texted again. “They are also popular in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, especially in Durban.”

Don’s brother lives in Bloemfontein, one of South Africa’s three capitals, which, by strangest coincidence, is a lot like High Point, and seven hours from Natal. Durban, three hours south of Natal on the east coast of South Africa, is a lot like Myrtle Beach to my eye.

“Wow!”  I hollered back. I hate to text, thinking it’s silly when he is in the next room. Then, I imagined South Africans buying and munching boiled peanuts from street vendors, wondering what they did with the shells.

The next day, I called my colleague, gourmand and veteran food writer David Bailey.  We talked Paul Theroux’s Deep South, and grumbled about how he didn’t really get the South. 

“Read Dispatches from Pluto,” David advised, going on and on about Richard Grant’s rollicking good read on restoring a Mississippi plantation house. Then we talked boiled peanuts and I told him how Don discovered they were big stuff back home.

“Don must have had boiled peanuts in South Africa and forgot about it!” David chortled. “That’s wonderful,” he laughed.  “It’s like okra!  Boiled peanuts came from Africa! Full circle!”

Reinvigorated, Don keeps spreading the gospel of the virtues of boiled peanuts, but I could have spared him some trouble: Regional cuisine is a hard sell. It is next to impossible to get anyone who didn’t grow up Southern to even consider eating a green peanut, let alone one that has been boiled for hours in salt water.

It would be easier to convince a Yankee to try pickled pigs feet. Or eat liver mush or a fried baloney sandwich.

And most especially, unless in the throes of love, to persuade an expat to pop a salty boiled goober in the mouth and chew.  OH

O.Henry frequent contributor Cynthia Adams solicits your favorite recipes for fried rabbit, okra, or even cooter. Yes, you read that correctly.

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