On a quest to taste tradition, the journey leads to a roadside stand and its delicacy of the South: the boiled peanut.
By JANET K. KEELER
Published June 25, 2003
[Times photos: Stephen J. Coddington]
Karen and Jake Merger have been selling boiled peanuts at the same spot on U.S. 19 in Crystal River for 14 years. When their daughters were young, they played in the grassy area behind the stand.
Once the shell is pried open, a boiled peanut should be firm, not mushy. If youre lucky, a little of the salty brine will be there for slurping.
Karen Merger, helping a customer on his way back to Pensacola, still sells peanuts to her first customer. A plastic pitcher with a funnel hot-glued to the top holds the bag that will soon hold peanuts.
CRYSTAL RIVER - Brightly colored balloons pave the way to Jake's #1 Peanuts.
Follow them and the homemade signs:
BOILED P-NUTS, blue balloons.
GARLIC FRIED P-NUTS, green and yellow balloons.
CAJUN P-NUTS, red and lavender balloons.
And then you are there, at a wide spot on the east side of U.S. 19, north of the mall and across the highway from Castaway's Bar & Grill.
Karen Merger is tucked into a 10- by 12-foot popup trailer with the radio tuned to any station that doesn't crackle and pop. She jokes about standing on one foot just to get a signal for her cell phone. A breeze rustles through, sending the earthy aroma of boiled peanuts every which way.
It's not the smell, though, that draws people to where Karen and her husband, Jake, have been selling Southern tradition for 14 years. Most customers have their windows rolled up and the ice cold air cranked. The love of "bowled" peanuts, and sometimes a curiosity about them, sends drivers careening off the highway for a bag or two. Some come a little too close, such as the guy who crashed into the stand last year.
"I guess he thought it was a drive-through," Karen says.
In a nation of homogenized food, where 7-Elevens in New Port Richey sell snacks identical to those in Newport, R.I., and a town without a McDonald's or Taco Bell is almost an anomaly, boiled peanuts exist as a reminder that unique flavors are still out there. You just have to keep your eyes peeled and a foot ready to brake when something interesting appears on the side of the road.
All over the South, roadside vendors ply the boiled peanut trade. From the beds of pickups, out of Crock-Pots at produce stands and in homegrown setups like Jake's. Jake and Karen get 'em coming and going, with locations in Crystal River and Homosassa, on the other side of U.S. 19. Balloons festoon his popup trailer, too.
"It's a bigger industry than people think," says Kevin Kelley, Florida director of the federal Farm Service Agency in Gainesville. How big, though, is as elusive as the guy who was selling on the corner yesterday but is gone today.
Karen's Crystal River stand attracts tourists and other early-morning travelers headed north. On fall Saturdays, the football faithful fill the lot with garnet and gold, and orange and blue. She treats them equally but can't say the same for how they treat each other. Fishermen and manatee huggers frequent Jake's Homosassa trailer in the late afternoons on their way back to Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg. She does better Thursdays and Fridays; he's the bigger seller Saturdays and Sundays.
A car rolls onto the grassy parking area, and a young woman jumps out. "How much?" she asks Karen.
"One quart for $3, two for $5." Lord, Karen would be a millionaire if she got an extra buck every time she said that. The customer bites on the deal and gladly takes a "shell bag" to hold the squishy, woody casings once the prized nuts have been extricated.
"It's a big Southern tradition," Karen says. "Going down the road and eating boiled peanuts."
Some say that anybody can boil a peanut, even folks like 40-something Karen and 50-something Jake, who fled south from New Jersey in the late '80s for lower taxes and warm weather. Jake sampled the roadside attractions and figured that he could boil peanuts, water and salt together for two, maybe three hours and make a living. How difficult is that? But if you've had a bad boiled peanut - and we'll excuse those who think that they are all disgusting - you know it takes some skill. Jake says that he threw away a lot of nuts early on, and the veterans on the boiled-peanut circuit were no help.
"They'd tell you a little but not the whole story," he says. "But before you know it, I came up with what we got."
Salt must be added while the peanuts are boiling so it permeates the shell and meat. Old schoolers let the peanuts sit in water after the heat is off to soak in even more brine. New school cooks, such as Kelley, use a pressure cooker to cut boiling time in half. He drains off the water as soon as the nuts are done.
Both camps know that salt added after the peanuts are cooked doesn't do much good.
Jake hangs bags of dried goobers in smokers before plunging them into boiling, salted water. Honestly, his plump boiled peanuts taste like bean soup laced with ham. The nuts are soft, like a cooked kidney bean but not mushy and with none of the boiled peanut slime that detractors complain about. (Kelley suggests that this so-called slime might result from letting peanuts soak too long.)
Jake buys his peanuts from growers in Williston, a small Levy County town where peanuts are more prevalent than people. He buys 800 pounds a week, mostly jumbos and likely a Virginia-type peanut with two nuts to the shell. Occasionally a three-peanut Valencia sneaks in and makes customers feel like they've won a prize.
A cooking facility near the Mergers' home is where the peanuts, both traditional and Cajun spiced, are boiled. They fry them, too, spiked with garlic, onion and lemon, honey, Cajun, and always salt. Dried, shelled peanuts are dunked into hot oil that's teeming with fresh, peeled garlic or lemon rinds and chunks of Vidalia onion. An arctic-cold beer, or at the very least a Coca-Cola, is a natural fit.
"Boiled peanuts are a terrific afternoon snack when you can sit under a shade tree and you don't have to worry about anything," says Les Harrison of the Florida Department of Agriculture. By no worries, he means not having to drive the car and spit peanut shells at the same time, something he says he can't do, though he knows others manage.
Harrison would be amused by Karen's story about a customer who returned to the stand waving a warning notice from a state trooper who took exception to the shells flying out the window. The customer should have taken a shell bag, she says.
This summer, Florida farmers will harvest about 110,000 acres of peanuts, mostly destined for kids' sandwiches as peanut butter. Georgia is the country's largest producer of peanuts, growing more than half of the 1.4-million acres planted in the United States. By comparison, nearly 80-million acres of corn is grown.
Soaps, face powders, shaving creams, shampoos and paints include low grades of peanut oil, and ground shells are used in livestock feed along with plastics, wallboard and abrasives.
But none of those uses garners as much discussion as the boiled peanut.
"It's a love-hate thing," Kelley says. "People who were raised in the South like them, but I find people who come here from up North hate them."
What about the people raised in the South who move up North?
If they are like Veruona Reed, formerly of Brooksville and now living in Syracuse, N.Y., they get their fix when they come home.
"I miss them," she says, handing $5 to Jake at his Homosassa stand. "Nothing like them in Syracuse, that's for sure." In the three weeks or so she'll be visiting family in Florida, Reed figures she'll stop at Jake's stand more than a few times.
And if she loses her way, balloons and memories will lead her there.