Boiled goober peas and an ice-cold Nehi — or peanuts and a soda, to those of us not from the American South — are a beloved snack below the Mason-Dixon. In The Bitter Southerner, James Beard-award winning writer Shane Mitchell offers a history of and paean to this most versatile and nutritional of ground nuts and to the region where it’s grown, correcting a few peanut myths along the way.
George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter. That’s one of those conflated facts taught in grade school, much like everyone still believing the earth was flat in the 15th century when Columbus discovered America. Actual first honors go to a Canadian, Marcellus Gilmore Edson, who was issued U.S. Patent No. 306727 for his “flavoring paste” to be used in the manufacture of “peanut-candy” on October 21, 1894. (Pre-Columbian Aztecs also pounded peanuts into a paste, so nothing is really new in the New World.) But Carver’s botanical research at the Tuskegee Institute contributed greatly to peanut butter’s rise in popularity. In 1916, he published a bulletin titled “How to Grow the Peanut & 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption,” which included his recipes for soup, cookies, fudge, and mock chicken. He also recommended peanuts for shampoo, mayonnaise, paint, massage oil, and flour. The Carvoline cosmetics company of Birmingham manufactured peanut hair pomade with his endorsement.
But wait! The humble peanut is even more multi-functional than that.
It is unlikely Carver would have imagined the use devised more recently by 12 inmates at Walker County Jail in Jasper, Alabama, on a Sunday evening last July. They saved peanut butter from their sandwiches and molded it like clay to alter a number above a door leading outside, then tricked a rookie guard into opening it. (The employee thought he was letting them back into the cells.) The prisoners ditched their orange jumpsuits, flung blankets over the razor wire fence, and busted out. Most didn’t get far—two were captured at the Flying J truck stop in town. At a news conference the next day, county Sheriff James E. Underwood said:
“Changing some numbers on the door with peanut butter — that may sound crazy, but these people are crazy like a fox.”
When I reached Jasper Mayor Paul Liollio for comment, he wrote back: “This wasn’t Jasper’s finest hour.”