Pindars, groundnuts, goober peas—whatever you call them, they’re America’s favorite nut, the peanut. Peanuts, however, are not actually nuts, according to Randy Griggs, executive director of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association. They’re legumes—edible seeds enclosed in a pod, like beans and peas. In the plant world, they are also unusual because they flower above ground but develop fruit below ground. (We’ll explain more about that oddity later.)
Native to Brazil, peanuts were brought to the American South from Africa, just like okra and many other Southern favorites. In fact, the nickname “goobers” is most likely from the African word “nguba.” Today Alabama, Georgia, and Florida together produce more than 60 percent of the peanuts grown in the United States.
The little corner of the world where the three states meet is known as the Wiregrass Region. It was named for a tough, wiry grass that covered the plains along the Chattahoochee River when the first Spanish explorers arrived. Wiregrass is hard to find these days, unless it’s a small patch incorporated into the landscape of a local business out of civic pride. Long ago, farmers discovered that the sandy soil is good for growing other things—like cotton and peanuts.
Cotton was once king in this part of the country—that is, until the Mexican boll weevil wreaked havoc on the crop in the early 1900s. Any Alabama schoolchild can tell you how Dr. George Washington Carver, an African-American scientist at what is now Tuskegee University, convinced Wiregrass farmers to plant peanuts as an alternative to cotton; and the rest is history. Today the area boasts several monuments to the peanut (and even one to the boll weevil in nearby Enterprise).
About the peanut plant’s unusual flowers: Once the petals wither and fall to the ground, only the stigma remains. Each stigma turns toward the ground and pegs, or burrows, into the soil where the peanut pods form underground. The light, sandy soil is easy for the plants to penetrate, but it doesn’t retain water well. “We say we’re always three days away from a drought,” explains Randy Griggs.
In this part of the country, farmers grow the runner variety of peanuts. Their uniform size makes them the perfect peanut for making peanut butter, the ultimate use for nearly half the peanuts grown in the United States. The average American eats more than three pounds of peanut butter each year. Or put another way, one acre of peanuts equals 30,000 peanut butter sandwiches.
That’s good news since few foods are better for you than peanuts. Peanuts and peanut butter are naturally cholesterol-free. They’re a good source of protein, vitamin E, niacin, phosphorus, and magnesium. The tasty, nutty spread you loved as a child can actually lower blood pressure and help reduce the risk of diabetes and breast cancer in women.
Peanuts are high in folate, the vitamin that can help prevent birth defects and can reduce the risk of heart disease. They’re also low in saturated fat, and high in unsaturated fat (the “good” fat that can help reduce cholesterol levels).
So go ahead. The next time you’re making a PB&J for your child’s lunch, make one for yourself. Peanuts are good for you.