Friday, May 23, 2008

Boomed The Peanut



An Enormous Increase In the Peanut Crop Due to the Old Soldiers — A Steady Demand, No Longer Limited to Fourth of July and Circus Days.

"I don't suppose there are many people who know that the ever popular peanut came originally to this country with the first cargo of slaves that landed on our shores," said a dealer in nuts and fruits, but such is the interesting fact. The peanut is a native of Africa, and in its wild state is as full of oil almost as a fat possum. Cultivation and change of soil have greatly reduced its oleaginous quality, although the nuts raised in North Carolina secrete enough oil yet to make them in demand in France, where they combine with their African progenitor and cotton seed to make a great deal of the olive oil we find in our restaurants and groceries.

"And I don't believe there are many people outside of those who have it who ever heard of the peanut habit. You don't like raw peanuts, do you? I thought not. No one does until he acquires the habit, and then he wants his raw peanuts just as regular as he wants his tobacco, provided he chews or smokes, and if he has the peanut habit the chances are he is not a tobacco chewer. The funny part of the peanut habit is that it prevails only among veterans of the late war who served either in Virginia or Tennessee or North Carolina. These are the states where the bulk of the peanut crop is grown.

"Perhaps you can remember how things were before the war. If you can't, I will tell you that the peanut then was chiefly a holiday luxury to the great mass of people in this country. The day when the circus was in town, or when the county fair was showing its pumpkins and four minute horse trots, or when the great and glorious Fourth of July had come around again, were about the only occasions when the popular yearning for the peanut was in any measure satisfied. On these memorable occasions the nut was shucked and masticated until it couldn't rest. It was only in the towns and large villages that the favored few could have peanuts with them always. Before the war there wasn't a peanut roaster in the whole country outside of the big towns and cities, and the rural dealers bought their stock already roasted and delivered to them in big, coarse bags. Today every crossroads from Maine to California has its peanut stand and its wheezing steam roaster, and the great American nut has no better standing on circus day or Fourth of July than it has on any ordinary day of the year, except that there is greater concentration of energy as to its shucking and chewing on these red letter days.

"Now, then, a large proportion of the soldiers who went to Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina were from the rural districts of the north. So when they got among the peanut patches they were, metaphorically speaking, right in clover. At first they roasted at their campfires the peanuts they pulled from the patches, but it wasn't long before they not only acquired a taste for them raw, but actually preferred them that way. The result was that the boys discovered after awhile that they hankered after their peanuts pretty nearly as much as they did for their tobacco, and after they got home they brought the longing with them. What has been the consequence? The demand for peanuts increased so much immediately after the war that the crop didn't begin to supply it. Wide awake farmers saw the point, and garden patches where peanuts had been grown for nobody knew how long were abandoned for broad fields, which were planted with the popular nut, and today Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina are growing something like 8,000,000 bushels of peanuts a year, a result due almost entirely to the civil war and the contracting of the peanut habit by the soldiers of both armies.

"Naturally the returned soldiers' loud call for peanuts soon placed the nut within their reach, and that of the rural population to the further limit of Way Back, and the nut ceased forever to be simply a holiday luxury. The floor of the backwoods grocery is now littered nightly with the shucks of peanuts hot from a revolving roaster as thickly as it ever was on the Fourth of July in the olden time, and the old soldier can get his supply of raw peanuts at Way Back Corners just as fresh and regular almost as if he were still on the old camp ground, yanking the nuts from their native soil.

"While the Virginia peanuts are the best, their popularity was threatened a couple of years ago. Consumers began to complain of their having a peculiarly disagreeable taste and smell, and they did too. What caused this was a mystery to the trade for a long time. Finally it was learned that sometimes the shells of a growing crop are discolored by a prolonged spell of wet weather, and, as one thing that recommends the Virginia peanut as a favorite in the market is its clean, white, glistening shell, a process of cleaning the damaged crop was invented. In it certain chemicals were used that impregnated the meat of the nut while cleaning the shell. When this was discovered, the artificial cleansing of peanut shells was discontinued until the difficulty in the process could be remedied, which has been done.

"Norfolk is the greatest peanut center in the world, about 1,000,000 bushels being handled there during the year. It is a pretty sight to see a peanut plantation when the vines are in blossom. The blossoms are a bright yellow and the vines a vivid green. No, the nut does not grow from the blossom. As soon as the blossom appears, though, a fine branch forms on the vine and shoots down into the ground. The peas, as the nuts are called on the plantations, form on the shoot beneath the ground, like potatoes. When the crop is gathered in October, the vines are plowed up, and the nuts hang to their roots. Vines and all are piled in cocks in the field, and in 20 days the nuts are ready to be pulled off, placed in bags and taken to the factories. There they are cleansed of dirt, assorted into different grades and polished in revolving cylinders, when they are ready for the consumer, whether he is the old soldier with the confirmed peanut habit or the lover of the nut smoking hot from the roaster." — New York Sun.

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