Thanks in large part to the entrepreneurial efforts of Charleston food writers Matt Lee and Ted Lee, who almost two decades ago started a mail-order boiled peanut business, the soppy goobers no longer mystify the rest of the country. (Beyond international borders, though, all bets are off: When Galway chef Jp McMahon, who is Irish, was presented with a bowlful when he was here for Cook It Raw last fall, he identified them as "some kind of strange legume.")
But the Charleston area, and South Carolina at large, has remained at the forefront of boiled peanut diversity. Around the Lowcountry, it's not uncommon to find roadside stands hawking salt-and-vinegar, barbecue and, especially, ham boiled peanuts, which draw their flavor from hocks added to the pot (or liquid smoke, depending on who's minding it.) In 2012, the trend went highbrow, with Husk serving country ham boiled peanuts with pickled jalapenos.
Peanuts came to the South from Africa, where the plant thrived after being introduced from South America in the 16th century. According to a City Paper overview of the snack authored by Robert Moss, Charleston's resident boiled peanut authority, the boiling method also was an African transplant, despite frequently repeated folk tales involving hungry Confederate soldiers.
Boiled peanuts became fashionable in the early 1900s, earning the attention of a newspaper reporter in 1925.
"Wash pots are filled with peanuts and salt water, fires are lit, and when the guests arrive, the delicacy is boiling merrily," the Universal wire service story explained.
Note the absence of references to garlic, onions, Tabasco sauce, Old Bay, curry powder and smoked paprika. A century ago, salt was as far as boiled peanut seasoning went. But experimentation reached the mainstream about 30 years ago, when Cajun peanuts became a standard selection at boiled peanut stands and gas stations.
Amateur and professional peanut boilers are forever toying with different recipes. Fortunately, the act declaring boiled peanuts as the state's official snack only requires that peanuts "are immersed in boiling water for at least one hour while still in the shell." Ham boiled peanuts make the cut.