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. That is, it was nearly extinct.
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.
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.
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."
The peanut owes its revival to food historian David Shields, author of Southern Provisions. "I had seen a photograph of the nut in the Sloane collection, then in the British Library," recalls Shields, who asked Tom Isleib, a peanut breeder at North Carolina State University, whether the university had a Carolina runner in its collection. "They had preserved the seed, but it was just called [Carolina] No. 4," Shields remembers.
Soon, horticulturist Brian Ward of Clemson University's Coastal Research and Education Center, in Charleston, S.C., was entrusted with planting 20 of those 40 remaining seeds. Twelve sprouted. Knowing these 12 were the precious living remains of a nearly extinct nut, he took special care. "I grew them right by my field lab," Ward recalls, "so I was basically able to watch over them all day long."
When the peanuts first blossomed in the summer of 2013, Ward and Shields were certain they had recovered the lost Carolina runner peanut. It looked exactly like the photo.
"We knew the moment we saw the multitude of nuts hanging from their pedicels," says Shields.
That year the 12 seeds became 1,200, then 60,000 in 2014, a million in 2015, and this year, 15 million. About 30 artisanal growers are also producing smaller crops in 2016. The project has been funded by the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, grain purveyor Anson Mills and its founder, Glenn Roberts, and the South Carolina Peanut Board.
Chef Parker says he created a riff on groundnut cakes for a supper raising funds for ongoing efforts to revive the melting-pot cuisine that once thrived from the Carolinas down to Jacksonville, Fla.
"We used the groundnut cake as an inspiration, but we titled our confection Velvet Elvis. It was roasted banana curd, toasted peanuts, bacon, a reduction of hot sauce and molasses, inside a puff pastry."
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."
The peanut's revival comes at a good time for South Carolina growers, who are turning to both Virginia and typical runner peanuts as the crop of the future. "There's a peanut renaissance going on in the state," says Ward.
In 2003, peanuts were grown on just 19,000 acres of South Carolina farmland. Today, several varieties of peanuts are grown on 110,000 acres, and the heirloom Carolina runner will soon be added into the mix.
"To think that those 40 seeds were the only viable seeds on the planet," muses Ward. "It's pretty special to bring them back."
Jill Neimark is an Atlanta-based writer whose work has been featured in Discover, Scientific American, Science, Nautilus, Aeon, Psychology Today and The New York Times.