Slaves brought peanuts from Africa and planted them across the South, where they were used as animal feed.
The peanuts are large and knobby. Blistered. That’s from the oil. That’s why they’re so good. Oily, salty, a satisfying crunch turning into the best peanut butter you’ve ever had in your mouth. They come in Ziploc bags in a box from the US Postal Service. They come all the way from Capron, Virginia to Deerfield, Wisconsin. Two tiny towns surrounded by farms in two very different parts of the country. My brothers and I cherish these bags, each guarding our own, seeing how long we can make them last.
My grandma, my father’s mom, who sends the peanuts, is petite and beautiful. Southern. Elegant. She has a closet of party dresses, wears costume jewelry, smells of powder and something floral, and loves to dance. She also makes the best peanuts in the world.
During harvesting season, Westley Drake, a farmer I find myself on the phone with one afternoon after a few hours of peanut research, wakes up before the sun. He puts on jeans and a t-shirt and a baseball hat, and heads out into the field, where he checks the moisture on the peanuts he picked yesterday. If they’re dry enough, he spends the morning loading them onto a semi-trailer to take to the local mill, then brings empty trailers out into the field.
Virginia’s peanuts are mostly grown in the southeastern part of the state, where the soil is sandy. “We like to think the sand has something to do with how they taste,” Drake says.
There are four types of peanuts grown in the United States. The Spanish and Valencias are grown in Texas and New Mexico. You’ll find them in PayDay bars. Runner Peanuts, grown mostly in southeastern states like Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, are used in peanut butter and candies. Then there are the Virginia peanuts, the ‘Cadillac’ of peanuts, known for their crunchiness and size. These peanuts, grown in Virginia and the Carolinas, are used in Planter’s cocktail peanuts, sold in-shell at baseball games, used in gourmet candies, and sent around the country in tins during the holidays.
As morning breaks, the sun bakes down on rows and rows of green bundles in hundreds of acres of fields. Drake services any machinery that needs it, taking special care to make sure his tractors and combines are ready for another day’s work. Then, he gets to harvesting. Moving on the combine between 1.0 and 1.3 miles per hour, the process of harvesting gives him time to think.
“Only a farmer can tell you what a difference 0.3 miles makes,” he says, laughing.
Drake is twenty-seven-years-old. He has an excitable voice and impeccable manners. Later, I see in photos that he has baby-pink cheeks and blonde hair lightened by the sun.
“Yes ma’am,” he says when I mention he seems young compared to most peanut farmers. “Agriculture skipped two generations. When farm kids in the ’80s and early ’90s were growing up, farming was really tough. I’m not saying it’s not tough now, but I believe agriculture has a bright future ahead. As the population continues to increase, the demand for more food is gonna be out there and I just think farming’s gonna make a comeback yet.”
Virginia ranks eighth in peanut production in the United States, according to a 2015 National Agricultural Statistics Service study. (Georgia ranks first, producing about 42% of the country’s peanuts). There are about two hundred peanut growers in Virginia, growing around 25,000 acres in an eight-county area in the southeastern part of the state. On the grower side, peanuts contribute about $25 million to the state economy.
“And that doesn’t even count manufacturing,” says Dale Cotton, Head of the Peanut Growers Cooperative Marketing Association. “There’s Planters in Suffolk; Birdsong, who is the middleman between the grower and manufacturer; and all of these businesses that ship them all over the world.”
The local economy around peanuts makes Virginia unique. So does the history. The first commercial peanut crop was grown in Sussex County, Virginia, in the mid-1840s. Like many things in the South, Virginia peanut history is tied to slavery. Slaves brought peanuts from Africa and planted them across the South, where they were used as animal feed. During the Civil War, soldiers started to eat them too. George Washington Carver began research in 1903 at the Tuskegee Institute that would eventually find more than 300 uses for peanuts, including shoe polish and shaving cream. These revelations, combined with the inventions of more modern equipment, brought peanuts out of pig feed and into candy bars and baseball stadiums.
“Virginia is where it started,” says Cotton.
While most Virginia farmers also grow other crops like soybeans or cotton or corn to stay profitable, peanuts hold sentimental value.
“As far as we know in our family, among fourteen generations of farmers, our family has always grown peanuts and we can track our roots and all that,” Drake tells me. “My grandaddy can recall in his whole lifetime he’s never missed a year of peanut farming.”
Drake can trace his family’s history back to Jamestown—the first permanent English settlement in North America, founded by the Virginia Company in 1607—as can I. There’s pride in his voice, something I feel too, though mine is mixed with guilt. I wonder if I would feel differently if I had grown up south of the Mason-Dixon line, and I say a mental thanks to my mother, born in Wisconsin. My dad’s side of the family is related to Robert E. Lee, whose last name is my middle name, and the middle name of women in my family going back generations. “He was a brilliant general,” I remember hearing my grandma say. As states took down their Civil War monuments last year, my dad reminded me that Lee was against any monuments related to the Civil War. He would have wanted his taken down, my dad tells me. He never would have wanted them up in the first place. Still, though he is the most liberal person I know and most definitely against the Confederacy, he cannot say Lee was wrong to shun the Union and fight for the South.
“Well, he said he couldn’t shoot another Virginian,” my dad says, hedging. In his voice, he knows it’s still wrong. When I visited her in Virginia years ago, my grandma showed me photos of her great-grandma, whose nanny, a slave, hid her under the bed when Union soldiers marched onto their lawn. War is complicated. The South is also complicated, and roots, no matter how wrong or tangled, are roots.
A lot of people don’t realize that peanuts grow underground. They go through a flowering stage, then produce a peg from the vine that goes into the ground and eventually turns into a pod that becomes the peanut. It’s this transition—watching something grow and turn into something people can eat and use and sell—that keeps Drake going.
“Truly and honestly, ma’am, I think farming is the best occupation in the world,” he says. He says it with such conviction, like I won’t believe he means it, as if he doesn’t realize you can hear the love for it in his voice. “But it’s not by any means the easiest, and some days when you ask me that question I might tell you a different answer. It’s not the easiest, but I love it.”
When I was around fifteen, my grandma and I were sitting on my aunt’s couch in Danville, Kentucky, watching my dad and aunt prepare Thanksgiving dinner. Their conversation turned to gardening, which is my dad’s profession.
“Shugah” (I loved her dainty Southern drawl on words like this), let me tell you. Your daddy loves his plants,” she said, gripping my knee with her long, knobby, fingers. “It is such a blessing to love your work like he does.”
I smiled and nodded, not realizing until many years later how true that was. My grandma was all about joy. Everything brought it to her.
“Oh, it brings me such joy to see you dance!” she would say after she cajoled me into showing her my latest ballet routine.
“Oh, it brings me such joy to see you all!” she would say to me and my brothers, who would stand there awkwardly as she held her hands over her heart and smiled with eyes that grew more crinkly each year, but always stayed bright.
Packages of peanuts and fudge, shipped from Capron after Thanksgiving and arriving in Wisconsin just before Christmas, brought us joy.
“You know Capron?” Drake asks me over the phone when I tell him I miss those peanut packages. “Well, shoot. Not a lot of people out of Virginia, heck, even in Virginia, know Capron.”
About 70 miles south of Richmond, Capron has an Ace Hardware, a post office, a Baptist church, and some railroad tracks. Maybe there’s more, but I doubt it. My memories revolve around watching cows cross the tracks on hot summer vacations, and spending hours reading on the swing on the front porch.
The house had a winding wooden staircase and a parlor room with a pink velvet couch. There were Persian rugs and Chinese sculptures and tall ceilings with slow-spinning fans. Walking from the large dining room through a hallway you enter the kitchen, which is surprisingly small for such a big house. I try to imagine my grandma and her mom, who my dad calls ‘granny’ and who I’ve seen in photos but don’t really remember, boiling batches of peanuts here.
This scene is much easier to envision in our own kitchen in Wisconsin on a chilly winter night, my dad holding a tray of hot peanuts, shaking it to distribute the salt. The peanuts roll with each quick shake of the tray. They’re laid out on brown paper, where they leave splotches of oil. The paper becomes stiff as the peanuts cool. This very Southern snack, prepared in a kitchen in the Midwest, is symbolic of my heritage.
The Virginia Lees on one side, my German, Wisconsin-bred mother on the other. What does it mean to be American? A question asked more and more lately, but one that never seemed to apply to me. I am comfortably American, privileged in that no one questions it, tracing roots back to the very beginning of its founding, when we took this country from someone else. Just like some people in Virginia and across the US would have you believe others are trying to do now. “We need to take our country back,” they say. Oddly, people say this in Wisconsin too, as they drive around with a Confederate flag in the back of their truck. “Learn your history!” my dad yells at them from the garden as they drive past our house.
Peanuts, unlike the Confederacy, are a safe Southern institution. They are not controversial. They’re a tradition you can proudly bring north.
“You know, honey, sometimes I just can’t understand that Yankee accent of yours,” my grandma says to me. My dad sighs and rolls his eyes.
Six years ago, a family feud ended with my grandma, mother, youngest brother, father, and I all squished in one car with luggage on the way to Virginia from Kentucky, where we had spent another Thanksgiving at my aunt’s. My grandma wanted to get home to Virginia to go dancing, bless her heart (as she would have said). My aunt wanted her to stay for a few weeks and go to a doctor’s appointment. My grandma was bored. My aunt was exasperated. Somehow, it was decided that we would drive her home.
“What a beautiful morning!” grandma said as we drove past dewy pastures filled with sleek Kentucky horses. Then, about thirty miles away from Lexington, she started to cough.
“Are you ok, mom?” my dad asked.
Her head slumped down.
Then, to my own mom, ‘Jane, she’s not breathing.’
We pulled over. I called 911. My mom attempted to do CPR. Emergency vehicles arrived. My youngest brother and I were asked if we wanted to see the firetruck, something that seemed absurd for our ages of fifteen and twenty-three, but that we agreed to anyway out of a loss for what else to do.
At the hospital, my parents were whisked into a room with my grandma. Eventually, my mom emerged with tears in her eyes to tell us grandma had congestive heart failure and had passed away.
I’ve seen my dad cry only once and this was not the time, though he did seem shaken. He hugged us firmly and asked if I wanted to go to the airport and fly back to DC, where I was working at the time, now that they didn’t have to drive to Virginia. Everything was so normal at the airport it was surreal. I packed Thanksgiving leftovers into my carry-on and hugged my family goodbye. “See you at Christmas,” they said. As my dad closed the trunk I saw the burlap sack of raw peanuts my grandma brought him from Virginia to boil and salt at home.
“On the farm, we work together as a family and that’s one of my favorite parts,” Drake is telling me over the phone. There’s not many jobs you can get to work with your parents and get along like we do.”
I can’t imagine working with my parents, but I can imagine being in the kitchen with them. It’s where we’ve held our best conversations and a place that holds so many of my memories for the past twenty-something years.
“You take the raw skin on jumbo redskin peanuts and pour boiling water over them,” my dad tells me on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago. “The peanuts are in a bowl. And you boil water and you pour the boiling water over them and let them sit until the skins blister. And then you peel the skin off of each peanut and lay them on paper towels and let them dry for a bit. Everyone has their own idea of how dry a peanut should be. Some people let them sit overnight. My mom and grandmother would let them get kind of tacky.”
Our kitchen is small, and when my dad boils peanuts, the operation takes over the entire room. Two countertops covered in drying peanuts, anticipation filling the house until we can snack.
“And then you fry them in peanut oil in very small batches, really no more than a handful or two at a time so that the oil temperature doesn’t drop. That’s important. And you fry them in the peanut oil until you start to see the peanuts start to blister again and start to open. Then you drain them on brown paper.”
I ask why brown paper and my dad pauses.
“Well, because it was available at the time and you had gone to the grocery store and you had a whole bunch of paper bags,” he says, as though the answer is obvious. It makes me smile. My dad is a fantastic cook. His meals usually come from elaborate, carefully followed recipes in which every element is made from scratch. This answer reminds me that unlike those meals, peanuts are something he knows from memory.
“I learned how to cook them standing at my grandmother’s knee,” he says.
As soon as the peanuts are on the brown paper, you salt them. This has to be immediate, so the salt adheres to the hot peanut.
“We always just used regular salt growing up, but at home, I use a mixture of regular salt and sea salt, because the sea salt is finer and it adheres a little bit better,” my dad says. I smile again—that’s more like it.
You cannot eat the peanuts until they are room temperature. If you eat them when they’re hot, they won’t have the right crunch.
“That’s the hardest part,” he says, “the waiting.”
But when the peanuts are cooled, and the salt has found its way between the halves, and you pop them into your mouth with a crunch, the wait is worth it. Just like hours on the farm are worth it. Just like knowing your roots is worth it, even if only to do better. I can’t eat Virginia peanuts without thinking about my grandma, and though I protest embracing parts of our family history and often cringe at my middle name, I’ll proudly tell everyone I know in the north about this favorite tradition, which can’t have come from anywhere but the South.
Rebecca Holland is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She has written for the Chicago Tribune, Al Jazeera, Pacific Standard, Saveur, and more. Follow her on twitter @_rebeccaholland