Virginia is known for its gourmet peanuts, with farmers in the southeastern part of the state producing millions of pounds each year. The legume, commonly referred to as a nut, is eaten raw or cooked as well as combined in many popular Virginia recipes, from peanut soup to peanut butter pie. They are now a staple crop and famous culinary flavor in Virginia, but did you know peanuts have a long and transformative history with an increase in popularity culminating in the Commonwealth?
Peanuts Carrots in Virginia
Peanuts were not a native North American crop, but are believed to have originated from South America somewhere near Peru or Brazil, where they were cultivated by indigenous peoples for over 2,000 years. Spanish and Portuguese traders then transported the peanuts from South America to Mexico and then to countries in Africa and Europe.
After crossing the Atlantic, the peanuts would cross the ocean again – this time with Africans forced into slavery and taken to North America in the early 1700s, where they would first enter the fertile soil of Virginia. are planted.
But although peanuts came to the American colonies in the early 18th century, they wouldn't become a culinary treat for years, and instead were primarily grown as livestock feed. It would take a technological leap and the work of a renowned biologist for the peanut to be recognized as a versatile (and delicious) crop.
Virginia Peanuts: Not Just a Geographical Indication
Photo Credit: Ashley Johnson
Virginia was the first known North American site to plant peanuts, but the name "Virginia Peanuts" isn't just a designation for where the peanuts were grown. Virginia Peanuts are one of four different types of peanuts (the other three are Runner Peanuts, Spanish Peanuts, and Valencia Peanuts) and are grown not only in Virginia, but also in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas.
The Virginia Peanuts differs from the other peanuts in both size and taste; they are the largest peanut, are more flavorful than the three other types and have a characteristic crunch when eaten. Virginia Peanuts are commonly referred to as the "Ballpark Peanut" because they are the type of peanut sold at baseball games around the country. Virginia Peanuts makes up about 15% of the total peanut production in the United States annually, and while the majority of the 26,000 acres of peanuts grown in the Commonwealth are Virginia Peanuts, about 1,000 acres of peanuts are grown. State's Runner Peanuts.
George Washington Carver, the father of Peanuts
Peanuts were more of a novelty than a staple in American culinary history prior to the early 1800s, but their popularity would steadily grow in the early 1800s. Union soldiers during the Civil War encountered peanuts in the south, and after the war ended, some soldiers returned home with peanut plants. The peanut's popularity grew even more in the late 1800s when P.T. Barnum's circus traveled the country with vendors selling hot roasted peanuts to the crowd. But the peanut really would gain widespread recognition with the help of a famous biologist named George Washington Carver.
Born into slavery in 1864 just a year before slavery was to be outlawed, Carver, along with his sister and mother, was kidnapped from the Missouri farm where he had been enslaved by a gang of slave robbers who roamed the countryside during the Civil War. Carver and his family were transported and sold in Kentucky, tragically separated during this time. Missouri farmer Moses Carver, who previously owned the Carver family, sent a neighbor to Kentucky to pick them up, but unfortunately only George Washington Carver was located and returned to Missouri.
Once slavery was abolished, Moses Carver raised George and his brother James and taught them to read and write. While James finished college and started working on the farm with Moses, George developed a deep interest in plants and began making his own natural pesticides. Neighbors would soon come to see George as a & # 39; plant doctor & # 39; who could help farmers in the neighborhood with his green fingers.
George Washington Carver contributed greatly to the study of agriculture, including the introduction of the now widespread practice of crop rotation, but his greatest contribution would be to agriculture and the culinary use of peanuts. During his lifetime, he invented more than 300 food, commercial and industrial uses for peanuts, including cooking oil, paper, soap and cosmetics. He even experimented with using peanuts in medicinal treatments, making ointments, antiseptics, and other peanut-infused medications that would have different results in their effectiveness. His published works describing peanuts' wide range of uses lead to their emergence as a valuable crop to be planted in Southeast Virginia and across the country, transforming the agricultural economy in the United States.
After continuing his studies, Carver graduated from Iowa State Agricultural School with a Bachelor of Science degree followed by a Master of Agricultural degree. He received many job openings after gaining wide recognition in the field, eventually accepting a job under Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute, where he would oversee the newly formed agricultural school.
Virginia Peanuts: A Commercial Crop
Before the mid-19th century, peanuts were only grown on a small scale. The first known commercial peanut crop was grown in Sussex County, Virginia, in 1842, close to the current town of Waverly. The region's sandy, loamy soil was the perfect consistency for growing peanuts, and in the next four decades, Virginia would become America's largest producer of peanuts. But it wasn't just the soil that put Virginia on the map when it came to growing peanuts.
While George Washington Carver would increase the demand for peanuts, a Black Virginia farmer would revolutionize the farming of peanuts. Benjamin Hicks grew peanut crops in Southampton County, Virginia, a crop that was difficult and time consuming to harvest. In the late 1890s, Hicks invented a gas-powered machine that steals and cleans peanuts, saving valuable time and speeding up the harvesting process. He successfully patented this peanut machine but got a lawsuit from one of the largest, most powerful farm equipment companies of the time.
Photo Credit: Ashley Covington
Fortunately, Hicks won this lawsuit in 1901, and his plucking machine went on to modernize the peanut farming industry. In 1902, the Tidewater region of Virginia owned fourteen of the twenty peanut plants operating in the US, making it the leader in the fast-growing peanut industry.
Where to try Virginia Peanuts today
If you want to learn more about peanuts today, there's no better place to do so than Virginia's Western Tidewater region, where you can take the Salty Southern Route to sample locally grown peanuts as well as salted hams and other pork products. . Suffolk, which has been the epicenter for peanut processing and marketing since the late 1800s, is still heavily involved in peanut farming. The internationally recognized Planter & # 39; s Peanuts brand has been home to Suffolk since 1913. The small town of Courtland in Southampton County is home to several big names in peanuts, including Feridies and Belmont Peanuts, where their boutique and deli store is right next to the peanut fields. you a glimpse into the agricultural process.
The town of Wakefield in Sussex County is another big name in Virginia's peanut production. The legendary Virginia Diner has been serving home-cooked meals since 1929 and also produces world-class peanut products. Wakefield Peanut Company welcomes visitors to their storefront filled with a huge variety of both raw and flavored peanuts and peanut products. Wakefield & # 39; s Hope & Harmony Peanuts grow an estimated 1.5 million pounds of peanuts per year, and while the farm doesn't have a shop window, you can find their peanuts in local stores or order them online and go to ship your home (shipping is free to most states) to try these tasty treats at home.
Whitley & # 39; s Peanuts has several retail locations in Richmond, Gloucester and Williamsburg. If you are in the Williamsburg area stop by The Peanut Shop to browse a wide selection of peanuts and other nuts, which make fantastic gifts for friends and family during the holidays.
Photo Credit: Ashley Covington
Hub & # 39; s Peanuts is another big name in the Tidewater region. Although the company is based in the small rural town of Sedley, they recently opened The Hubs Vine in the town of Franklin. This modern market and gourmet shop isn't all about peanuts; you can find an array of specialty Virginia food items, handcrafted craft items, craft drinks, and games like cornhole for the whole family to enjoy. While the Hubs Vine may be the central peanut-themed destination in Franklin, there are many other small peanut shops to check out during your visit.
The towns of Smithfield and Surry are filled with local shops selling Virginia peanuts, and we've even created a full road trip itinerary for the region that will help you plan your next vacation to the region!
In addition to peanut shops and farms in the Tidewater area, you can also learn about the history of peanut farming at the Isle of Wight Museum (home to the world's oldest peanuts and oldest cured ham ) and the Miles B. Carpenter Folk Art Museum in Waverly, home to the first peanut museum in the United States.
In the Southern Virginia town of Emporia, you can even snap a photo for a peanut-themed LOVEwork!
Virginia Peanuts have come a long way since arriving in the United States hundreds of years ago. They have been recognized as a superfood, are now celebrated as a high-protein crop, and have become a solid foundation in the Virginia culinary world. While peanuts are grown in many other locations in America, the Virginia Peanut is by far the most sought after and delicious variety. Plan a trip to one of these peanut-focused cities in Southeast Virginia to experience the magic of Virginia Peanuts for yourself.
Peanut fun facts
Photo Credit: Ashley Johnson
Here are a few quick facts about peanuts that you may not be familiar with.
- As we said before, peanuts are not actually nuts, but legumes. While it may be technically imprecise to call them crazy, most people still call them that.
- A 30 gram jar of peanut butter consists of approximately 540 peanuts.
- The President of Virginia Thomas Jefferson and Georgia-born President Jimmy Carter were both peanut farmers.
- Peanuts grow underground, connected to the roots of the peanut plant. To harvest the crop, a harvester pulls up the whole plant, farmers remove the peanuts from the roots and leave the plants to serve as natural compost for the soil.
Would you like to learn more about Virginia's lesser known history? Dive into these articles and stay tuned for more. But did you know … history pieces to learn about Virginia & # 39; s most incredible true but untold stories!