Love ’em or hate ’em, boiled peanuts are South­ern spe­cialty

Ledger-Enquirer - - Local - BY MICHELLE MATTHEWS

When Jay March­man was a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Alabama, the Dothan na­tive would bring bags of boiled peanuts from Mc­Neill Farms back to Tuscaloosa with him. He had grown up eat­ing the del­i­ca­cies and as­sumed his friends liked them, too.

“It was like pulling teeth to get peo­ple to eat them,” he says.

Lit­tle did he know, as a busi­ness ma­jor, that one day he would re­turn to his

home­town – known as the peanut cap­i­tal of the world – and take over for Ed and Nita Mc­Neill, who had founded Mc­Neill Farms 25 years ear­lier.

“I’ve been eat­ing th­ese peanuts from th­ese folks since I was a kid,” he says. And now he’s teach­ing his daugh­ters, Frances, 4, and Maryn, 3, how to eat them.

“As fast as I can shell them, they'll eat ’em,” he says.

Boiled peanuts, which are ac­tu­ally not con­sid­ered a nut at all but a pea va­ri­ety, are even pop­u­lar with the hip­ster crowd. Paramount, a pop­u­lar eatery at the cor­ner of 20th Street and 2nd Av­enue North in Birm­ing­ham, of­fers an Alabama Hum­mus ap­pe­tizer that sub­sti­tutes boiled peanuts for chick­peas, served with pita bread.

They’re of­ten found at less trendy lo­ca­tions like road­side stands and gas sta­tions, as well, and they’re a tail­gat­ing musthave for many foot­ball fans. Best served hot, the shells soften as they’re boiled, and the peanuts in­side are soft and mushy. The best way to eat them is to bite into the shell, re­leas­ing the brine and the pea in­side; then throw the shell away.

The taste of fresh boiled peanuts can’t com­pare to that of those warm­ing in a ubiq­ui­tous crock pot in a con­ve­nience store or, God for­bid, sold in a can. When boiled peanuts are made with green peanuts that have re­cently been ex­tracted from the earth, they be­come “a whole other an­i­mal,” Jay says.

Mc­Neill Farms’ peanuts are grown on a to­tal of 3,000 acres, mostly in cen­tral Florida, where they ben­e­fit from an ex­tended grow­ing sea­son. “We get green peanuts be­fore any­one else,” he says, so Mc­Neill has the first and last peanuts every year, all hand-picked in the fields, then de- stemmed, washed and packed. Each Wed­nes­day from the first of April through Thanks­giv­ing, a re­frig­er­ated semi-truck trans­ports bushels of green peanuts to Dothan.

At Mc­Neill Farms’ pro­duce stand in Mid­land City, fresh boiled peanuts and green peanuts for do-it-your­selfers are avail­able six days per week. “We have 12 50-gal­lon pots we boil them in daily,” he says. Base­ball parks and foot­ball sta­di­ums sell them like crazy dur­ing their games. And, on the whole­sale side of the busi­ness, Jay sells to in­de­pen­dent gro­cers and pro­duce stands.

Mc­Neill Farms is the big­gest sup­plier of boiled peanuts in the Dothan area, Jay says, sell­ing 4,000 pounds per week this time of year, and be­tween 7,000 and 10,000 pounds per week in the spring­time. Though he has ex­panded to of­fer other pro­duce such as zip­per peas, but­ter beans, Slo­comb toma­toes and home­made creamed corn, he says peanuts are the sta­ple, mak­ing up a solid 75 per­cent of his busi­ness.

And just in case you don’t live within driv­ing dis­tance of Dothan but would like to try boiled peanuts from Mc­Neill Farms, they’re de­liv­ered as far north as Mont­gomery every Wed­nes­day and shipped all over the coun­try any­time. Jay says he has a large fol­low­ing on the West Coast, where he mails boxes of boiled peanuts packed in dry ice.

Most of the time, Jay’s peanuts are sim­ply boiled in those large vats of salty wa­ter, but on week­ends and at spe­cial events – like the 75th an­nual Na­tional Peanut Fes­ti­val in Dothan through Sun­day – he might do batches fla­vored with Ca­jun spice or dill pickle fla­vor­ing.

“There’s tech­nique in­volved, but no se­cret in­gre­di­ent,” he says. Well, ex­cept for one: “Love.”

JAY KARR jkarr@is­land­

Scott Mor­son digs in to a boiled peanut as Brooke Molin con­tem­plates hers dur­ing the 2017 Boiled Peanut Fes­ti­val in Bluffton, S.C. Boiled peanuts are of­ten found at road­side stands and gas sta­tions in parts of the South.

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