To mark its arrival in Charleston, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams (the subject of this week's Now Open column) created a flavor threaded with blackstrap molasses and bulleted with salted peanuts. Whether the homage was intentional, the recipe recalls a candy that was once considered a city icon.
According to University of South Carolina professor David Shields, who recently sent along a fascinating write-up on the candies that ruled Charleston's streets in the years before World War I, "when Carolina expatriates dreamed of returning to Charleston, (groundnut cake) came to mind."
As Shields writes, groundnut cakes weren't the only popular homemade sweet. Vendors also hawked monkey meat; a molasses, brown sugar and shredded coconut concoction spiked with malt vinegar; benne cakes; and horse cakes, a kind of spiced molasses cookie.
But it was the peanut-and-molasses candy that was considered "Charleston's greatest charm," as an 1899 edition of the Charleston Evening Post put it. So devoted were Charlestonians to groundnut cakes that a reporter in 1895 related - without denying - rumors that groundnut cake makers scraped spilled molasses off the wharves where casks were unloaded before deeming the candy "delightful, crisp and wholesome."
Groundnut cakes weren't unique to Charleston. Philadelphia street vendors sold a version of the treat, although it was made with milder white sugar, and lacked the lemon peel that distinguished Charleston's favorite candy.
For half a century, eaters could purchase one groundnut cake for a penny, although Sarah Rutledge laid out a formula for a more elaborate groundnut cake-like dessert in 1847's "The Carolina Housewife." Rutledge's recipe called for butter, eggs and blanched peanuts. "Blanching did not bring out the nuttiness of the legume," Shields writes of the oily Carolina Runner Peanut that figured into the candy.
Shields is now working with Anson Mills and Clemson University to revive the long-lost Carolina Runner Peanut, a process that includes a major planting of the crop at the Coastal Education & Research Center on Savannah Highway tomorrow. If all goes well, true groundnut cakes could again next year "appear ... as the sure sign of Spring's advent" in Charleston.