Growing up in the Deep South, peanuts and peanutty foods were part of my scenery, rather like chips are here in Scotland, or good bread is in France. At its most basic is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich: always on white bread and usually with wobbly Concord grape jelly oozing out of the sides. This sandwich is an everyman food that literally everyone, whether rich or poor, black or white, Democrat or Republican, is happy to eat. A good honest sandwich. Real sweet-tooths might sub the jelly for marshmallow Fluff (the Fluffernutter), but neither is anything without a solid slather of peanut butter.
It is thought that this all-American mini-meal was born from the WW2 US Army ration packs, where each man got new-fangled white sliced bread, some grape jelly (itself mass produced for those serving in WW1) and a jar of naturally protein-rich peanut butter. Even some of our presidents were involved in peanut growing: Thomas Jefferson cultivated them at Monticello, Jimmy Carter at his family farm in Georgia, and it is said that our first president, George Washington, enjoyed a peanut soup not a million miles from the one I am posting today. A similar soup to President Washington’s is served all over the state of Virginia, and is a constant on the menus in historic Williamsburg.
There are peanutty pleasures beyond the basic sandwich, although internally embellished with a plain salty potato chip – or three – the PB & J was quite the treat in my day. But if you were lucky, and your mother was a baker, then some really decadent treats could be yours for the price of cleaning your room.
The apogee for me is the peanut butter cookie, which is basically butter, flour, peanut butter and sugar, leavening, vanilla and an egg. In my house these would be made in massive batches, ostensibly for a bake sale or for a poorly church member, but always enough to fill the battered enamel Christmas cake tin that we used year-round, and smelled faintly of rum. You can keep your Girl Scout Do-Si-Dos, and your Nutter Butters, this is THE peanut butter cookie to end all peanut butter cookies. The best bit as a kid was getting to roll the sticky, sweet dough into balls, roll the balls in yet more sugar, then pressing them onto the cookie sheet with a fork, criss-cross style. Basically multiple opportunities to lick the delicious raw dough – and incur the wrath of the safety police, aka my mother: “That’s disgusting. No one wants your germs. And there’s more in you than on the tray.”
Another peanutty delight is something that sounds hazardous and disgusting to many non-Southerners: the boiled peanut. Ah, the boiled peanut. That salty legumous treat, dispensed from steaming, dubious-looking drums at roadside stands, and served en-shell in styrofoam cups. The only snack where spitting is not only allowed, but encouraged. Bless him, Mr A is a brave soul, but the first time I introduced him to this southern delicacy he thought it was some kind of joke natives play on foreigners. He really thought this was some sort of initiation rite, a kind of culinary Deliverance. His first visit to Florida to meet my folks came during peanut season and, as is the norm, there were plenty of peanut shacks and trailers advertising their singular snacks on homemade, usually misspelled, signs. I pulled over to one in my car and asked my then-fiance to do the honours of getting us some peanuts. His pupils dilated in what I now know was fear, but still with only the smallest of hesitations he procured a scalding pot of shell-on peanuts, the dimpled goobers cowering in an evil-looking brine (his probable view). Delighted, I plucked one from the pot and, with a manicured hand (this was a looong time ago, when I had time for that level of grooming) plucked a peanut from within, and proceeded to crack it open with my teeth. Classy, or what? He soon got the idea and we both polished off the pot while leaning on my little Mazda 323. Those were the days. I haven’t had these peanuts in years, but I can almost conjure up their soft, saline nuttiness.
What Mr A had grown up eating, or rather most probably slurping, was a stew something like this. He spent his formative years in Zambia, which is in southern Africa. And although these kind of stews are more common in West African countries, like Mali and Senegal, my mother-in-law Ann cooked something not dissimilar with whatever was available, including peanuts, yams and scrawny market chickens. Most groundnut stews will be made with chicken and staple items like yams, peanuts, tomatoes, spices and whatever is good at the market, like okra and greens. It is a delicious hodgepodge of a stew combining foods that were at various points in time either ‘slave food’ (peanuts, peas, yams, greens), or travelled on slave ships (the spices). A sad and shameful backstory but one that has been absorbed and transformed by the peoples who make and eat groundnut stew. Traditionally it is served with mealy meal (rather like polenta), millet, sorghum or a sticky starchy porridge that you roll into balls called fufu. Rice, quinoa and even rough country bread are also good.
I have been making seasonal variations of this recipe for a very long time – over 20 years. And I have recently introduced it with thumbs up all round to my Nutrition Workshops at the Maggies Cancer Caring Centre in Edinburgh. I am sure it was something I had tried somewhere, or read about, but it is basically my vegan, and American, version of a very African dish. The photos show a summer version, with aubergines, fresh tomatoes and borlotti beans. This time of year I use black eye peas. This thick, almost satay-like, vegetable-heavy stew welcomes any legume or bean, but I like black eye peas best: partly to do with the whole New Years’ tradition thing, But mostly because their special creaminess is perfect here, with the sweet-savoury flavours that leap from the pot and fill the house with warm spice. We will be having this with American friends on New Years’ Day and I will serve it with hot sauce-doused kale and a big skillet of cornbread. And no Mark, I won’t forget the dime for luck!
Although this is a long way from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the groundnut stew has become a staple winter warmer here at food to glow. And like the PB and J, it tastes great with a few salted crisps!
Similar recipe: Hoppin’ John For New Year’s Day Luck Southern Style
West African Groundnut Stew
Other traditional garnishes are chopped hard-boiled egg, shredded lettuce, sliced tropical fruit (e.g. banana, mango, pineapple), parsley, chutney and chopped tomato (perhaps not all at once though).