The Carolina African runner, like many heirloom cultivars of the South, was first brought to America in the 1600s by enslaved West Africans, who grew it in their backyard gardens. It was the South’s ancestral nut, memorialized in songs, peanut fritters, peanut soup and in Charleston’s signature candy, the peanut-and-molasses groundnut cake. According to reports from the era, vendors of groundnut cakes would go down to the city’s wharves when casks of molasses were being unloaded, scraping it up to boil for the cakes, then adding butter, egg white, parched peanuts and lemon peel. They were sold for a penny by free black women called “maumas” sitting on three-legged stools from dawn to dusk. All the groundnut maumas were shut down as part of local sanitation efforts, along with the World War I sanitation initiatives set forth by Herbert Hoover.
This year, says Parker, he’s getting Ziploc gallon bags of peanuts from landscape architect and heirloom seed grower Nat Bradford of Seneca, S.C., who grew out 1,000 pounds of the peanuts this year. “The flavor is intense,” says Bradford. “It’s like you turned up the volume on a peanut. Even the fragrance of the peanut bush is amazing.”
By the Great Depression, the nut had nearly vanished — displaced by larger and more popular Spanish and Virginia peanuts. (Virginia peanuts were brought over from Bolivia in the 1840s.) A mere 40 seeds survived, tucked away by plant breeders in the 1930s in a cold-storage seed vault at North Carolina State University.
Now, the Carolina African runner peanut is back from the brink.
A tiny pink peanut is not a white rhinoceros. Nor is it a green turtle or a Bengal tiger. But until a few years ago the Carolina African runner peanut – at one time, the South’s most praised peanut, packed with flavor and rich with oil – was much like the rhinoceros and turtle and tiger.
The first commercial crop of 15 million peanuts was harvested this past November — slated for chefs, artisanal peanut butter makers, and cold-pressed peanut oil.
“The peanut,” says chef Forrest Parker, appointed a 2016 South Carolina Chef Ambassador, “is small to the point of being diminutive, but when roasted has the most intense peanut flavor I’ve ever experienced, and continues to be a revelation every time I taste it.”