Thursday, October 12, 2006
Peanuts…a Snack Food That Came From Africa
By ROGER M. GRACE
The peanut, one of America’s favorite snack foods, is generally thought of—naturally enough, in light of its name—as being a nut…though it’s actually a legume. We associate it with Jimmy Carter and Georgia, elephants and zoos, and bowls on the tops of counters in bars. To those of us of pre-Ike vintage, it brings to mind the cry at ballgames of “Peanuts, popcorn, crackerjacks!”...the “Peanut Gallery” on the “Howdy Doody” show...and Art Baker delivering Skippy’s spiels.
What the peanut is not commonly associated with is Africa. But from a historical perspective, it should be. The peanut is not indigenous to Africa, but came there centuries ago, and from there to here.
Reah Tannahil in her book, “Food in History,” says that Francisco Pizzaro, a 16th Century Spanish explorer, encountered peanuts in Peru, noting that they “were already familiar to the Spaniards, who had encountered them in Haiti.” She says that the Spanish “were soon to be instrumental in introducing the Peruvian variety to the Malay archipelago, from which it traveled to China in the early 1600s.”
And, historical authorities agree, they came to Africa, became a staple there, and found their way from Africa to the New World.
Ships bringing slaves also brought peanuts. A May 10, 1860 article in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel tells of the British seizure of a slave ship that, aside from the human cargo, was “half loaded with hides,” the other half being peanuts.
“They are known as ground nuts and ground peas in North Carolina; in Georgia and Alabama they are called pinders, and in Tennessee goobers,” the Delta Herald in Pennsylvania advised on Oct. 12, 1883. “The plant was imported originally from Africa....”
The peanut’s alias “goober” is taken from the name for peanuts in the Congo: “nguba.”
Popularity of the peanut in the U.S. harks to the mid-19th Century. The New York Daily-Times said on June 15, 1853:
“There is a rapid increase of products in Liberia. In 1835 less than fifty bushels of ground nuts were exported from the Gambia River. In 1851 their exportation amounted to 39,000 tons.”
One merchant in New Orleans, according to the Feb 7, 1851 edition of the Star and Banner in Gettysburg, Pa., made $12,000 on a transaction involving African peanuts. After importing them, “[t]hey were transshipped to France, and sold readily for the manufacture of olive oil, ‘a la mode de Paris.’ ”
Exports from Africa directly to France ensued. The Weekly Wisconsin Patriot on April 24, 1858 reported:
“Two arrivals at our port last week from the Western Coast of Africa, brought nearly 7,000 bushels of pea or ground nuts — It is said that from fifty to sixty thousand tons a year are shipped from Africa to this country and to Great Britain and France. The export of pea nuts and palm oil only to America and Europe represents the annual value of at least fifteen millions of dollars.”
From the Indiana (Penn.) Progress edition of Jan. 4, 1877:
“The best [peanuts] are raised in the valley of the River Gambia, in Africa, and yield large quantities of oil. This product, when largely produced, is esteemed equal to olive oil; but it is also used in woolen manufactures, in soap making, in lamps, and for lubricating machinery. Last year the crop in the United States was as follows: Tennessee 235,000 bushels; Virginia, 50,000; North Carolina 100,000. The import from Africa last year were 846,000 bushels, of which Boston imported 8,000, and New York 23,000.”
Reliance on Africa for peanuts dwindled as crops in the southern states of the U.S. increased.
As far back as Aug. 4, 1853, the New York Daily-Times carried a commodities report showing that both African peanuts and Southern peanuts were being marketed.
Newark, Ohio’s Daily Advocate contended on July 8, 1882:
“TESSESSEE, Virginia and North Carolina are the great peanut-producing States, and supply all the peanuts consumed in the United States, Canada, West Indias and Bermuda Islands,”
Well, not all the peanuts came from those states. African imports continued in sufficient volume that the New York Times said in an editorial on Sept. 28, 1882:
“A powerful plea has been entered before the Tariff Commission in favor of the peanut-growers. It sees that the still infant branch of agriculture which they represent has to struggle against the importation of African pea-nuts, and that the maintenance of the protective duty of 1 cent per pound on unshelled and 1˝ cents on shelled peanuts is absolutely essential to its continued existence. If foreign rice must pay a duty of 105 per cent. ad. valorem in order to prevent the negro laborer sinking to the level of the mere Asiatic, there is really no reason why imported pea-nuts should not be subject to a still larger tax by way of protecting the small farmers of North Carolina against African competition.”
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