If you're from South Carolina, you probably already know about the late summer joy of boiled peanuts, fresh and hot from roadside farm stands. But if you're visiting us with your family in these dwindling weeks of summer from the north or overseas or from anywhere that leaves you asking yourself, "Doesn't she mean roasted peanuts?" then you should keep reading. Because I was once just like you.
When my family moved here, I had never even heard of boiled peanuts, let alone eaten them. And the first time they were offered to me at a neighborhood get-together, I declined. OK, I'll admit it, the first dozen or more times. Because, and I'll admit this too, I was afraid of them.
I know this sounds ridiculous, a 40-year-old woman afraid of something so delicious. But the state snack of South Carolina seemed strange to someone from Massachusetts: hot, mushy peanuts floating in water. Peanuts should be crunchy, and really salty, and ideally from Fenway Park, I thought.
And probably because I wouldn't try them, my kids didn't want to either. We stuck to peanuts from a jar, from the store.
But every time I'd stop at the farm stand in a field on the two lane highway leading out of town this summer to buy a watermelon or ears of corn for dinner, I'd spot the big, banged-up kettle sitting on a single burner a few inches above the dirt, connected by a snaking cord to a propane tank. And the farmer's wife would see me looking and ask if I wanted some peanuts. And finally, one day, I asked for a quarter of a pound.
She took the lid off the kettle and fished out a few peanuts with a long skimmer. She poured them into a paper bowl and tied them up in a plastic grocery bag.
The kids and I walked back to the car and looked at them. They looked like regular peanuts that had been dunked in some water, but they were soft to the touch and warm.
"Okay, Jimmy and Mary, give them a try," I ordered as I handed them each a peanut. "Peel off the shells and eat it."
"No way," Jimmy said.
"You first," Mary insisted.
("You three are ridiculous," said my husband, originally from Texas, when I told him the story.)
So, knowing the kids were watching, I bravely peeled back the squishy shell. The meat of the nut was still swimming in warm water in the shell, so I poured the slimy little peanuts into my palm, and threw them in my mouth.
And it turns out I love them, and so do the children. They taste like warm, fresh, just a little salty, tiny peanut butter nuggets that that burst when you squish them against the roof of your mouth. They're bizarrely delicious.
So when you're exploring our lovely state, from the coast to the mountains, and you see a big hand-painted sign for boiled peanuts at a little stand on the roadside, pull over. Don't fear the boiled peanut. It's one of the best parts of late summer in South Carolina.
You still have to peel boiled peanuts. Don't eat that shell!