In Mobile, peanuts seem to always come in tiny brown paper bags: hurled off a Mardi Gras float from the arm of a reveler, toted out the door of the A&M Peanut Shop and, once upon a time, passed through car windows by the legendary Peanut Man at the Loop.
For most of us living within city limits, the peanut is something that has always been here, handed to us by somebody else in a tidy little package. But where exactly do they come from, and how did they get here? And why are they so darn delicious? A closer look at the wrinkly legume reveals a fascinating history. From the Civil War battlefields to your tailgate party, the peanut’s journey to your kitchen has been a long and interesting one. Here, crack into the history and science behind the goober pea, one of Alabama’s most important crops for the past century.
SHELL IT OUT
The peanut plant originated in South America and is a member of the legume family. The seeds of the plant grow in pods underground, an uncommon trait among crop plants. It loves warm climates, well-drained sandy soil and long walks through the fields. Of the four major varieties of peanuts, runner peanuts are the most common found in Alabama and in peanut butter!
Peanuts are harvested in two major steps. First, a large tractor towing a horizontal blade moves down the crop rows, pulling up the green plant and exposing its peanuts to the sun. Once the peanuts dry out in the field for a few days, a combine harvester is driven along the rows to cut the pods from the plant. From there, the harvested peanuts will go to drying containers where their moisture content will be diminished to around 10 percent.
SCIENCE IS NUTS
Perhaps the most important trait of the peanut plant to farmers in Alabama is its capacity to fix nitrogen. This means that certain bacteria on the plant’s roots actually add much-needed nitrogen back into the soil. This way, farmers can grow peanuts alternately with other crops, such as cotton, to keep their soil fertilized year after year.
HOLD THE LEGUMES
About 0.6 percent of the American population experiences an allergic reaction to peanuts, a number that has increased in recent decades. The allergy can, and often does, last a lifetime, but at least one study indicates that about 23 percent of children will outgrow a peanut allergy.
EAT MORE PEANUTS
Peanut butter is more than just jelly’s best friend. The health benefits of eating peanuts include lower blood pressure and reduced risks of birth defects, diabetes and heart disease. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks!
Our history in Peanuts
- Before the Civil War, the American upper class viewed peanuts as an unrefined snack, fit only for slaves and the poor. It wasn’t until after the war, during which soldiers from both sides enjoyed the peanut’s nourishing qualities, that chefs and medical professionals began exploring the uses and benefits of the legume.
- In Alabama especially, the arrival of the destructive boll weevil, an insect that wreaked havoc on the South’s cotton crops, coincided with post-war enthusiasm over the peanut. By switching from cotton to peanut production, many farmers were able to take advantage of and be a part in the nation’s growing infatuation with peanuts.
- To most Mobilians, he was simply the Peanut Man. Few people knew his real name was Lamar Wilson. He became a Mobile icon after years of selling little brown bags of peanuts to drivers sitting at the Loop’s traffic lights. It was said that, soon after Hurricane Georges, the Peanut Man returned to his post with his brown basket of peanuts, prompting Mayor Mike Dow to conclude, “Business is back to normal.”
- Downtown Mobile’s A&M Peanut Shop, a local fixture, opened in 1947 as a part of a chain belonging to Planters. The store’s manager, Alfred Gibson, bought the store in 1963 and named it A&M, after himself and his wife, Mary.
- Today, peanut production is alive and well across the state. In fact, about half of the peanuts produced in the U.S. are grown within 100 miles of Dothan, Alabama.
Text by Breck Pappas