“No, ma’am,” I said, shaking the peanuts into my bottle, where they caused a little reaction of foam, then floated on the brown liquid. I drank and munched with the glory of salt and sweet in my mouth at the same time, all the while looking toward the window, at birds flying home to their nests and moonlight just starting to pour down on the midlands of South Carolina, this place where I was tucked away with three women whose faces shone with candle glow.”
– Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
To become a better writer, read more. To become a better food writer, travel more… and eat more while you’re at it. Navigate the geography of tastes that the world offers. Befriend grandmotherly and big-brotherly types, and use whatever wiles necessary to elicit an invitation to their homes for dinner. There are few things as edifying as experiencing a different culture firsthand: learning its beliefs and practices, adopting new forms of etiquette and interaction, and, of course, sampling its unique flavors and dishes.
At this point in my life, I don’t get to travel as much as I would like to. I have two young children to attend to, and the household budget doesn’t allot much for international globe-trotting. I rely on books as my primary means of transportation these days. I’ve been all over Asia with Tony Bourdain; to Kansas City and Baton Rouge with Calvin Trillin. I’ve bounced between Memphis, Orly, and Tunis with Jeff Steingarten, and lingered for extended periods of time in France with Colette, MFK Fisher, and Julia Child. I got a real kick out of dressing in disguises with Ruth Reichl and sleuthing my way through the New York City restaurant circuit. These authors are unparalleled and highly treasured companions; their professional experiences, canny observations, and humorous anecdotes help me expand my own palate and open my mind to life in other places and cultures. Their writing is unequivocally the next best thing to traveling itself.
I have had the good fortune of trying several delicious cuisines in my limited adult travels. It’s no secret that the southwest places first in my heart, but, by dint of marriage and sheer deliciousness, southern cuisine takes a close second. To my mind, the American South represents an example of the more troubled side of history, culture, and its geography of associated tastes: collard greens, boiled with a smoked ham hock until perilously soft (critics would say ‘mushy’); golden fried okra and spicy black-eyed peas; cracklin’ corn bread; homemade fried chicken and smoky pork barbeque; sweet tea; moon pies; salted peanuts dropped in coca cola bottles. Southern food is, admittedly, not the healthiest long-term diet plan, but it tastes good. Righteously good. There’s a reason that people refer to it as soul food.
My only objection to eating southern food is that I have to be in the actual south to obtain it. Since I am as libertarian as a Yankee girl can be, being in the south usually involves keeping my opinions to myself, remembering my place, and trying very hard to consistently add “ma’am” to whatever I say. There is also the unsettling undercurrent of residual social and racial tension. I’m a sensitive person and I’m reasonably intelligent; the south exposes me to uncomfortable jolts of long-buried historical turbulence pulsing from deep underneath the façade of progress. When I’m in the south, I eat as much of its cuisine as I can. But I get the hell out before the karmic weirdness becomes seriously upsetting.
When I separate the history from the cuisine, southern food speaks to me about love and perseverance. Grits are love – pat them with butter, sprinkle them with salt, and savor how something so simple can be so creamy and bone-satisfyingly delicious. Fried foods have been known to awaken deep-seated passions in even the demurest of individuals. Southern food is the opposite of pretentious and fussy; it is hearty, rustic, and slow-cooked, and it utilizes many of the ingredients indigenous to its geography. It is the sort of food that ought to bring people together. And perhaps the quintessence of southern cuisine is the boiled peanut. Humble, inexpensive, and addictively good, the boiled peanut is best enjoyed while eaten outdoors with a glass of icy cold sweet tea and the company of good friends.
The basic recipe for boiled peanuts is this: boil a whole mess of raw peanuts in a large quantity of heavily salted water for a good amount of time. Unspecific, but that is as descriptive as I can be without venturing into the murky waters of “proprietary information.” Recipes are widely available through the internet and in classic southern cookbooks, but it isn’t long before the variations appear: Use crab boil instead of salted water! Add cloves! Try jalapeno slices! Substitute peanuts for unshelled edamame! I do admire the great diversity of recipe variations on boiled peanuts, because they are at least slightly more forthcoming than the peanut purveyor whose recipe I lusted for: that guy at the US-1/SR 206 tackle and bait shop with the good ol’ boy drawl, who dismissed my recipe inquiry with a grunt and a faintly amused twinkle in his eye. In that moment, I learned that boiled peanut recipes are as diverse as those of fried chicken, and they are held just as proprietarily among those who make the best ones.
When my mother visited me in Florida, we habitually stopped at the Palatka fresh market to buy various produce and a few bags of boiled peanuts before returning home to St. Augustine. We devoured the first bag of peanuts in the thirty-minute drive, setting aside the empty shells in the peanut shell receptacles I brought along. The remaining bags we surreptitiously consumed in the evening and the following day. Though boiled peanuts can last for several days when refrigerated, ours rarely lasted more than 24 hours. My relationship with my mother was tenuous at times. We both loved each other fiercely, but that also meant that if we disagreed, we did so with equal vigor. Boiled peanuts were our Switzerland.
In a way, the time I spent in St. Augustine completed my transition from girl to woman. I learned so much about culture and history, about making a home out of a house, and about becoming a mother in those three brief years. I learned about understanding of place, individual and geographic. I started writing again – about things I actually cared to write about. Maybe southern cooking awakened something vital in me; maybe the change was strictly intellectually and physiological, but I think it was a synergy of several factors. Whatever it was, when I think of boiled peanuts, my memories of them resonate with love.