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Distraught over shortage of Charleston's favorite boiling peanut, sellers seek alternative

Boiled peanuts

 Boiled peanuts/File

To assemble the most South Carolina of scenes, all you need is a tall shade tree; a ramshackle wooden stand with a sign reading “hot boiled p-nuts” and a 50-pound sack of Valencia peanuts from Portales, N.M.

Although it rarely comes up in public discussions of South Carolina’s official state snack, the peanuts traditionally boiled along the state’s coast are shipped in from the Southwest, where sweet, thin-shelled Valencias have long flourished in the sandy soil. Last year, though, New Mexico farmers were deprived of rain and seduced by cotton prices, leaving the Lowcountry to contend with a massive Valencia peanut shortage.

“We definitely have a peanut dilemma on our hands,” said Andrea Limehouse of Limehouse Produce. “Charleston is fiercely loyal to the Valencia.”

Limehouse annually sells 125,000 pounds of raw Valencia peanuts, five times the total of other peanut types combined. It usually exhausts its inventory in August, right before a new crop comes in. But on March 1, the distributor notified peanut buyers that it had sold every Valencia it was able to source this season.

With just a few weeks left before South Carolina peanut growers have to put seeds in the ground, the boiled peanut community is at a crossroads. Boiled peanut backers must choose between building up demand for Virginia or runner peanuts, the two dominant varieties statewide, or enhancing the homegrown supply of Valencias.

S.C. Peanut Board marketing specialist Marianne Catalano is firmly on the side of popularizing the state’s existing peanut crop, which only includes 8 acres of Valencia peanuts. By contrast, South Carolina farmers grow 82,000 acres of Virginia and runner peanuts, making peanuts the state’s sixth most valuable crop.

“Maybe this is the time to tweak consumers’ mindsets and taste buds to support local farmers,” Catalano suggested. “This would be a great time to showcase the Virginia peanut we grow here; to increase demand for green peanuts and plant more acres in 2022.”

Beyond a narrow strip of South Carolina, nobody needs to be persuaded to boil green peanuts. Those freshly dug peanuts are considered superior, in part because they don’t need to be rehydrated like raw peanuts do.

Raw peanuts, such as the Valencia peanuts cherished around Charleston, are air-dried so they last longer. The National Peanut Board likens the schism to working with canned or dried beans.

“With Valencias, you get more bang for your buck, but you have to do extra work,” said Walks Milliken, a Columbia horticulturist who boils peanuts for football games and fundraising events. “The Valencia peanuts have no life to them: You have to submerge them in a bathtub situation for 12-13 hours and then you start cooking them.”

Milliken has gone through that rigmarole, but doesn’t see the point. He likes the hulking appearance and salty taste of Virginia peanuts, especially after he’s let them sit in a “flavor soak” of sugar and ham hocks.

“I’m a green peanut man,” Milliken said. “I think it’s like Coke and Pepsi: I don’t think there’s a wrong. I don’t think there’s a right.”

Like soda loyalists, he also doesn’t think there’s a reason to switch.

It’s unclear how Charleston developed its unique boiled peanut preference. Although the Valencia has always commanded respect from peanut connoisseurs, its low yield and susceptibility to mold were deal breakers for Southern farmers trying to turn a profit.

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“The Valencia peanut makes butter of excellent quality, but as this variety is grown on a very small scale, its use is necessarily limited,” a trade publication called The Peanut Promoter decreed in 1922.

A few years later, The News and Courier, in a column adjacent to an ad for radium pads, advised readers to plant a small peanut patch alongside their money-making row crops so they could have a personal stock for boiling. The paper didn’t then specify what kind of peanuts to grow, but Valencias were name-checked almost 70 years later when The Post and Courier ran a recipe provided by a Ravenel boiled peanut salesman.

By that point, Portales, N.M., had established itself as “the Valencia Peanut Basin of the Nation.

Its peanut crop first surged during World War II, when the federal government contracted with a local processor for millions of eight-ounce cans. During those busy years, buildings at the Roosevelt County fairgrounds were packed floor-to-ceiling with Tennessee Reds, a Valencia peanut with at least three kernels per pod and the thin shell prized by boilers intent on penetrating it with brine.

Portales in the early 2000s produced approximately 90 percent of the nation’s Valencia peanuts. But its output dropped off over the last decade, Roosevelt County Extension Agent Patrick Kircher said.

“We went several years there with not a peanut raised in the county,” Kircher said, citing brutal weather and the increased value of cotton. Although Kircher is optimistic that peanuts will return to Portales, the crop is now grown almost exclusively in west Texas.

Which led cookbook author Matt Lee to ask: Why not grow them in South Carolina? Lee, who with his brother, Ted, has sold boiled peanuts by mail for nearly 25 years, believes there’s a “cultural imperative” to produce the peanuts that Charleston-area eaters favor. Plus, he maintains they taste better than Virginia peanuts.

Lee had one last 50-pound bag of Valencias in his freezer when he got word that Limehouse was sold out. He’s planning to give those peanuts to Old Tyme Bean Co.’s Josh Johnson, described by S.C. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Eva Moore as a “legume genius.”

“We could all be munching Valencias by the end of June,” Lee said.

Johnson farms in Cameron, but grew up in Horry County, so he deeply appreciates the Lees’ peanut allegiance.

“From Manning back to the state line, they would not have a Virginia peanut if you gave it to them,” Johnson said. “Where I live presently, between Santee and Orangeburg, it’s the exact opposite: They hardly wouldn’t have red-skinned.”

“It’s like a four-door Chevy,” he concluded. “You’re only willing to pay for what you want.”

When Johnson started growing peanuts in 2005, he grew Valencias, Virginias and runners. He still grows about 600 acres of Virginia peanuts, most of which end up in candy bars, but he quit farming Valencias after a painfully wet 2013 that devastated his seedstock.

But he’s looking forward to giving his chosen peanut another shot. He only wishes Lee had alerted him sooner to the tribulations on the high plateau of New Mexico: It sounds to him like an opportunity.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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