The cardboard sign on the highway said “Hot Bulled Pee-Nuts.”
I pulled over out of pure instinct. For there are few things I love more than a pee-nut that has been properly bulled.
I parked. I stepped out of my truck and walked toward the smell of steaming Cajun spices. The man boiling peanuts was older, seated beneath an Auburn University tent.
He was dressed in Levis and square-toes. He wore a belt buckle the size of a hubcap. He used a canoe paddle to stir a kettle seated atop a roaring blue propane flame.
Beside him was a 50-pound bag of Sam’s Club salt. He removed handfuls of salt and tossed them into the boiling water like fairy dust. Then he licked his fingers for show.
And the line grew longer.
Soon, there were six of us standing there, on the side of a rural Alabamian highway at noon. We were sweating in the violent heat until our clothes were translucent and our hair was matted.
“He does good peanuts,” said a guy in line. The man looked as though he had come directly from work. He wore a necktie. His shoes cost more than my truck.
“They’re worth it,” said another woman balancing a baby on her hip. “My husband says his spicy peanuts are the best he’s ever had.”
So we waited. And waited.
Now and then the old man would remove a hot goober pea, crack it open, and sample it. Then he’d spit it out, shake his head, and announce that they weren’t ready yet.
A few kids on BMX bikes showed up. They ditched their cycles and joined the line. And we became 8.
Then a truck with Florida tags stopped. A man and his wife got out and assumed a place in line. And then we were 11.
“First time I ever had a boiled peanut,” said a guy in line, “I was 10 years old. We just moved here from Iowa, but my dad was originally from Pelham. He stopped at a gas station and got some peanuts for me and said if I could eat only ONE boiled peanut, he’d give me 20 dollars.”
Everyone laughed. Because no red-blooded human could win such a bet.
“I don’t even remember the first boiled peanut I ever tasted,” said another woman. “I grew up in Dothan, the peanut capital of the world. Boiled peanuts were served at my wedding.”
Time droned on. We perspired gaily in the sunlight, awaiting the rapture of peanuts. I was sweating so bad I was squishing in my shoes.
I was thinking about how a few months ago I was in Baltimore, Maryland, for a book event. One morning I went to a farmer’s market and saw a vendor selling peanuts, which got me excited. I love peanuts in all incarnations.
I bought a bag of parched peanuts and asked the guy if he ever boiled his peanuts.
“Boil them?” he said with genuine revulsion. “We don’t do that here, son.”
So I found another vendor at the market selling pecans and peanuts. I asked the same question. “Do you ever boil your peanuts?”
The man scoffed. “Never knew anyone who did that” he said in a strong northern accent. “When I was in Georgia, I tried boiled peanuts once. They were disgusting.”
These unfortunate souls don’t know what they’re missing. I don’t know how boiled peanuts could ever be misconstrued as “disgusting.”
I mean, I could see how someone could think potted meat was somewhat unsavory. Especially if there were no Cheetos around. And I could also understand how someone might find livermush to be untoward. Maybe even pickled quail eggs, hoghead cheese, or scrambled brains. But boiled peanuts?
Boiled peanuts are food fit for company. They are the caviar of the SEC. The escargot of the trailer park. The official hors d’oeuvre of the fundamentalist.
They are the dish my family places on buffet tables for special occasions like birthday parties, baptisms, funerals, infant christenings, and real estate closings. They are the gift my uncle gives at Christmastime, along with smoked mullet dip, and a passle of pig’s feet.
Finally, the old cook sampled a peanut from his vat and ceremoniously declared that the boiled legumes were ready. The people in line almost applauded, but we were too sun-beaten to move.
For $5 bucks the man filled a Ziploc freezer bag to capacity, then sent us on our happy way.
Thus it was, I sat in my front seat, the air conditioner blasting, my truck idling on the highway shoulder. Traffic whizzed by, and I ate culinary heroin. They were so scaldingly hot, the brine burned my tongue and left red welts on my lips. But I didn’t care.
Because there truly is nothing better than a bulled pee-nut.