Guest post by Dr. Jessica B. Harris
Food photography by Stephen Klise and food styling by Elle Simone Scott
Around the world, people celebrate their holidays with food. In France, crepes are eaten on La Chandeleur (February 2) for good luck. In the Hispanic world pride is taken in a meal of rice and beans that is so ubiquitous that it is sometimes called La Bandera (The Flag). Haitians must have a bowl of Soupe Joumou on New Year’s Day to commemorate their independence struggles. And African Americans have our collards and Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day. What would be a good dish to add to the menu for Juneteenth? Certainly, the barbecue, watermelon, and red drink are already there, but I’d like to suggest that a cup of peanut soup might be a good addition with which to honor the Emancipation celebration.
Why peanut soup is the question that would no doubt follow? Peanuts are not native to the African continent, and they seem to not get beyond George Washington Carver in the United States context and that’s exactly the point. Peanuts, because of their rich history on African continent and in the United States are in many ways a perfect vehicle with which to honor the story of African American Emancipation.
Peanuts, (Arachis hypogaea) which are not nuts, but legumes or seed pods originate in the American Hemisphere and are taken to the Africa continent early on by Portuguese and Spanish explorers and traders. There, they gradually supplant the Bambara and Hausa groundnuts, other similar legumes in popularity and become not only a very widely used culinary addition but eventually a major cash crop.
Most people think of the peanut in Africa simply as food with thoughts of the rich peanut stew from Mali known as mafe, the peanuts that may appear in sauces for Nigerian suya, or the dark roasted ones that are sold in recycled liquor bottles on the streets of Cotonou, Benin. However, we often forget the commercial implications. In 19th and 20th century Senegal, the peanut was a major colonial cash crop with the French government exacting a heavy tax burden on African peoples and requiring them to produce peanuts: tons and tons of them to be sent to Europe for use as animal fodder and in the production of peanut oil. The nuts also played a key role in the production of soap, wax as well.
On this side of the Atlantic, it was the enslaved Africans who returned peanuts to the northern part of the hemisphere in the 1700s. There they were used in crop rotation to replace valuable nutrients in the soil and as a convenient snack and culinary ingredient. Throughout the colonial period peanut soups begin to appear on tables. The first known written recipe comes later and appears in Sara Rutledge’s 1847 cookbook, The Carolina Housewife. Her recipe for Groundnut Soup is simple:
To half a pint of shelled groundnuts well beaten up, add two teaspoons of flour and mix well. Put to them a pint of oysters and a pint and a half of water. While boiling, throw in a red pepper, or two, if small.
Although the book attributes it to Rutledge, it is probably a version of a recipe that was originated by enslaved African cooks.
Peanuts were certainly first eaten in this country by Africans and food scholars opine that the peanut soups that turn up in early colonial cookbooks like that of Sara Rutledge are Big House variations of a more humble ones eaten by enslaved Africans. Indeed, in the hands of talented enslaved chefs, peanut soups became hallmarks of elegant southern tables and one version is still served today in the tavern at Colonial Williamsburg.
The Civil War spread peanut usage to the Northern and Western United States and the growing circus movement transported snacking on them around the country. In the twentieth century, George Washington Carver found a multiplicity of uses for them and their popularity continued to grow. Soon the peanuts that sustained the enslaved became as much a part of American culture as hot dogs and baseball games. So, at Juneteenth, grab a cup of peanut soup! It’s a fitting way to celebrate our resilience, our resourcefulness, and the myriad of uncredited culinary gifts that we have given this country.
Get the recipe: Dr. Jessica Harris' Peanut Soup Recipe.
As part of our commemoration of Juneteenth 2021, Peanut Butter & Co. has made a donation to The National Museum of African American History and Culture.