Peanuts and the Age of Discovery

Peanuts are members of that great family of agricultural gifts that the New World gave to the old (other notables include corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, beans, sunflowers, chocolate and tobacco). Call ‘em goobers, groundnuts, pinders or monkey nuts, they all bring a smile to your face. What is it about the peanut that it’s almost synonymous with childish glee?

The spread of the peanut is something of an odd story. The Conquistadores were the first Westerners to encounter them, as the story goes, finding them for sale on the streets of what is now Mexico City (I think I bought my first paper bag of boiled goobers there, probably from the very same old lady). From there they probably went to Spain. But the real peanut Diaspora started in Brazil, where the Portuguese found them and subsequently introduced them to Africa, India and China. Being 50% oil, the peanut quickly became a major source of cooking oil for the Chinese. In Africa the peanut became a highly successful food crop. So successful, in fact, that it was soon brought by European traders and slaves to America. “Goober” is in fact the Congolese word for peanut.

Though slaves in America enjoyed them, wider adoption of the peanut as a food was slow. Not many farmers grew them, and the ones that did typically used them for animal feed. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the peanut really took off as a food.

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