The Legacy of a Legume

AMERICA — MARCH 31, 2021

The Legacy of a Legume

Many recipes iconic to American cuisine can be traced back to the native lands of the people who built it, including peanut soup.

As a Virginia native, spending my youth in the sugar cane and peanut fields of Appomattox and Suffolk, I have always been accustomed to snacking peanuts, the local legume. Peanuts were handed out at church. And my great-grandfather kept a big red bucket of peanuts in his car; I can still feel the crunch of the shells under my feet and the salt in the corner of my mouth. 

To many Virginians, peanuts are as common as potato chips. Tins are found in most pantries, local gift shops sell peanut-themed merchandise like figurines and decorated hats, and there are even annual festivals celebrating the state’s famous cash crop. But as a child, I never understood why it was such a celebrated lot. When the holidays would come and peanut soup was served, I never gave the dish the respect it deserved. But, as with many things we enjoyed but often took for granted in our youth, my grandparents reminded us that peanut soup was a delicacy of our descendants. 

The soup always started with a tin of fresh Virginia nuts and my grandmother calling us to the kitchen to help her shuck. She’d soak the peanuts, blend them into a purée, and add it into a large silver pot full of chicken stock. Then garlic, onions, carrots, finely-diced tomatoes, and an array of spices were tossed into the pot. The recipe for her peanut soup always seemed to change—sometimes without the carrots, and occasionally adding potatoes and varying levels of spice depending on who was eating it. But the heart of her version was always consistent: the little brown legume for which the dish was named. 

The tale of the peanut began ages ago in the lush, tropical soil of South America. Our unwitting protagonist, the Arachis hypogaea, was born into the botanical family Fabaceae. Sibling to the pea and the bean, the peanut is biologically a legume, but it’s resemblance to the tree nut has it commonly confused. 

For years, the humble groundnut grew wild and free across the Mesoamerican plains. Over time, and as domestication began, the pods evolved into several branches of botanicals, each subspecies with its own diverse structure and growth cycle. They were planted and harvested by Indigenous Southern American tribes like the Tupi, and were used for food and oil, as well as to replenish the earth by naturally returning precious nitrogen back into the soil. 

As pre-Columbian farmers and traders began to migrate and explore, these earthnuts traveled with them, tucked away in their shells, on a trek that would unknowingly change the lives and landscape of the world. 

Far beyond their center of origin, in the foothills of the Ñanchoc Valley in Northern Peru, archeologists found physical proof of peanuts dating as far back as 5600 B.C. The presence of these legumes in an area where they did not originate provided a perspective quite different from the idea of agriculture. 

For the Andeans, these legumes were a prominent component of ancient rituals and lore, planted as offerings to the god Viracocha and served at ceremonial feasts. The Moche memorialized the pods in extravagantly crafted pendants and stonework to accompany the most prestigious members of their tribe on their journeys to the afterlife. Images of peanuts were also depicted on ceramics, sculptures and textiles portraying rituals of fertility and growth. 

The reason behind the peanut’s supernatural significance in these Incan civilizations remains widely speculated. Perhaps the presence of the shell was seen as protection, the soft seed inside attributed to rebirth, and the crop’s ability to nourish depleted soils revered as a blessing of abundance. As it seems, these unspoken themes followed the peanut on the path to come. 

Around the time the peanut embarked on its course to cultivation, an entirely different invasive species began a quest of their own on the European continent. 

Conquistadors set out from Portugal and Spain in the late fifteenth century in an attempt to reach Asia. Instead, they arrived in the Caribbean and then traveled onward up the South American coast. They coined the Age of Discovery, leaving a trail of destruction and devastation in their wake. They pillaged lands, destroyed societies, and enslaved the Indigenous people they encountered in the name of their European God and country.

As the conquistadors moved across continents, the resources, textiles and treasures they stole went with them. They arrived in Mexico in 1519; and as fate would have it, in the Aztec temple of Tenochtitlan—a civilization with similar rituals as those of Peru—their paths crossed with the peanut. After a tremulous takeover in Tenochtitlan, the Portuguese (with the peanut in tow) traveled back across the sea toward Africa, unaware that what they carried would be a key ingredient in a historical recipe.

The Portuguese were on a mission to find gold. Prince Henry hoped to strip Africans of this resource in order to aid the struggling economy of Portugal. Making port in West Africa’s Guinea, the colonizers encountered the Bamana, a royal section of the Mandinka people and founders of the Mali Empire. The Bambara had long established their own agriculture, including its own endemic legume. The Bambara groundnut was similar in shape and taste to its cousin from Brazil, the peanut. 

The African groundnut was high in nutritional value, packed with carbohydrates and protein, grew in plenty throughout the region, and was a staple in the tribe’s everyday life. It was used in medicine for its antimicrobial properties, cooked down to make oils and milk, roasted and salted for snacks, processed into cakes, ground into meal, boiled like beans, and puréed into stews like tigadegena. West Africans utilized the groundnut in ways other cultures did not, and in turn, it became vital to the survival of both their culture and their lives. 

To the colonizers, this savage food was of little concern. The peanut was an opportunity to sew a simple, fast-producing crop that could be used for trade and to feed livestock, prisoners and slaves. However, after seeing the benefits of the groundnut, colonizers began to cultivate the peanut, which thrived in Africa’s warm Sub-Saharan terrain. 

At first, the Africans welcomed the Portuguese, allowing them to set up a trading post called Elmina on Guinea’s coast. As the trade of gold, ivory and natural goods began to flourish, the blanket of European destruction expanded, ultimately reaching North America where colonizers established more new colonies on other people’s land. 

With this newfound world came newfound needs for labor the inadequately skilled Europeans could not maintain. They had destroyed the Native population with their foreign weapons and diseases and sought a new society’s lifeforce to help support the physical demands of the new land. 

So the dawn of the sixteenth century began with the kidnapping and enslaving of West Africans, shipping them across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas for trade. They were stripped from their homes and forced into the hulls of ships to sail across the sea with the groundnut as one of the only food sources they were given for sustenance. The Africans were kept in deplorable conditions, stacked on top of each other in these vessels, packed like and with peanuts, which would birth what is now a haunting and ubiquitous phrase. 

During this horrific moment in history, the power of the peanut prevailed once again. Africans knew this nut and its high-protein and nutritional properties were critical to fighting malnutrition; it would keep them alive. As they arrived on the southern shores of Virginia, the Africans and the peanut were introduced to a new land, new soil, and a new story.

In the seventeenth century, slavery in the Americas became an established system, forming an entirely new society built on the backs of Africans who were not allowed to live in it. Just as the colonizers had imported the Africans, they also brought with them their plants, culture and cuisine. From rice to sugar cane crops, the slave republic of America was dependent on African agriculture for its economic development, although they refused to admit it. 

Sorghum, coffee, okra and watermelon are native to Africa, while commercial products such as Coca-Cola and Hershey’s were made from the African plants that were brought to the Americas on slave ships as provisions, medicines, cordage and bedding. 

The fact that many foods slaves were given on the plantations were seen as unfit for white consumption, allowed the slaves to hold on to a small slice of their heritage and revive some of the recipes of their culture, like peanut soups and stews. 

For the several hundred years that followed, this little pod would pass through time as an inconspicuous crop, serving as nutriment for slaves and livestock. In a bit of historical irony, peanuts were a vital part of the diets of both armies during the Civil War; the soldiers relied on the groundnuts for their portability and high levels of protein. The Confederate men fighting against freedom found themselves being saved by the same food as slaves.

As the landscape of the new America changed, with it would come the emancipation of slaves, breaking their physical chains, releasing them into a world that had caused ceaseless pain. Many freed Black men and women went on to still work the farms, but a rare few were allowed the opportunity of an education. Some educations were paid for by former slave owners, and others were provided with the assistance of the federal government’s Freedmen’s Bureau, which helped former slaves start their own schools in churches throughout the North.

In the early 1900s when the Southern Tropic’s cash crop cotton began to deplete the land causing economic turmoil, the farmers turned to a former slave. George Washington Carver, a slave-turned-scientist, knew more about this land than the white men who aimed to profit from it. The notable Black botanist introduced the method of crop rotation to white farmers in addition to the mass harvesting of a powerful nitrogen-fixing plant—the peanut. Carver’s legacy was planted into the history books thanks to that simple seed with roots tracing back to Africa and Peru. 

It is with Carver that the peanut’s path would forever change. He transformed this precocious pod into a plethora of products, turning it from slave fare into a household name. In fact, he invented over three hundred peanut derivatives. Carter utilized the insight of his ancestry to formulate a scientific discovery that only those with a first-hand perspective of the diaspora could create. 

The first commercial peanut crop was planted in Sussex County, Virginia. The Tidewater regions’ vast sandy soils and warm temperatures were prime for growing peanuts. The crop flourished and remains one of the region’s most profitable and enduring products to this day. 

As with many things throughout history, the white population noticed an opportunity for new industry and dismissed their preconceived notions of the peanut for profit’s sake. No longer was it just a food for the poor; it was now a pantry staple, a cash crop, a treat, and so much more.

The process of peanut harvesting was grueling, and without the free labor of slaves, it was a difficult crop to maintain. It was a Black farmer, Benjamin Hicks from Southampton County, and his invention of a gas-powered machine, who was integral in changing the peanut game. Hicks’ machine stemmed and cleaned peanuts as opposed to the method of doing this by hand. This allowed for faster turnaround and opened these farms up to mass production, bringing both industry and wealth to the area.

With the surplus of peanuts and the popularity of Carver’s research, peanuts made their way from the plantations into the pockets of the mainstream. As with many things throughout history, the white population noticed an opportunity for new industry and dismissed their preconceived notions of the peanut for profit’s sake. No longer was it just a food for the poor; it was now a pantry staple, a cash crop, a treat, and so much more.

Peanut’s fame spread across the nation, carried in part by the traveling circus. Ringling Brothers fed them to their animals, and eventually roasted and sold the peanuts in the stands. Peanuts became synonymous with the American snack, roasted for baseball games, added to children’s candy, and used to produce a cheap and versatile oil. But while these nuts were taking over the nation, peanut soup stayed shelled up in Virginia.

This simple mix of puréed peanuts and spices was a Virginian delicacy served everywhere from plantations to the homes of presidents. Nowadays, it’s hard to find a restaurant in Virginia that doesn’t serve a version of peanut soup. Considered a local luxury, Northern Virginia has an Alexandra version and Williamsburg refers to theirs as colonial soup. However, it’s impossible to not acknowledge that the soup sold today is a milder, more accepted version of the African groundnut stew. But thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of slaves, this and many other recipes are now woven into the fabric of American cuisine. 

Similar to Black Americans, the path of the peanut is more than just luck; perhaps the world would have been different if it was anything but. So the next time you look at a peanut, remember how far it has come, and that in a world full of ingredients, many of life’s greatest recipes began with just one.

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