The Humble Peanut: Arachis Hypogaea in a Family’s Roots

The Linneaen name for the humble peanut is Arachis hypogaea. Hypogaea = under the earth.

The humble peanut. If the word “humble” springs to mind when you think of peanuts, it may be because the etymology of humble passes through Middle English to Old French all the way back to the Latin humus, or ground. Soil. Earth. Humble is a positive word to my ear. Right-sized and bulbous, peanut-shaped. It stands against the flashy, the pretentious, the gawdy. Yet even the flashy and pretentious and gawdy of the world — your birds of paradise, your billionaires — came from and will return to humus. We start our lives in wombs looking not unlike peanuts encased in their shells, and many of us end our lives buried hypogaea in caskets looking not unlike peanuts encased in their shells. Humble is essential, ubiquitous. Dust to dust.

Peanuts are also now ubiquitous. Arachis hypogaea was domesticated from its wild ancestors from a likely origin in what is now northwestern Argentina and southeastern Bolivia, with cultivars spreading throughout South America. In the past couple of centuries, they’ve become big business, grown the world over, with China producing almost 40% of the world total. Both a food crop and an oil crop, peanuts are featured at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, eaten out of hand, shelled or unshelled. I don’t remember who won the baseball games my dad took me to when I was a kid, but I do recall sharing a big bag of peanuts, delighting in being allowed to toss the shells onto the ground and kick them forward with my dangling feet.

The peanut’s seed pods ripen in the soil rather than in the air, a rare habit in the legume family, but not unique. One of the peanut’s cousins across the Atlantic is the Bambara nut, Vigna subterranea — grown for millennia in what is now Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, and southern Mali — whose pods are similarly harvested from the earth. Thus, when the Portuguese brought the peanut to their shores from Brazil, West African peoples quickly recognized its potential in their farming systems and developed their own varieties.[1] Portugal and other European powers weren’t just in West Africa to bestow peanuts, however, but to enslave people for their agricultural knowledge and expertise. In fact, the first peanuts to reach the American South did not travel north from the species’ origins in South America, but west across the Atlantic, brought by the enslaved. As Adrian Miller writes in Soul Food:

Slaves supplemented their diet by fishing, foraging, gardening, and hunting as well as by cultivating provision grounds and raising livestock. Where there was an appropriate climate, the slaves raised foods they were familiar with in West Africa, often calling the plants by their West African names or a close approximation thereof. For example, the Gullahs of South Carolina used… pinda, the Kongo word for peanuts.[2]

Too often, however, the history told of food is not of its heritage but rather its commodification. In the entry on Nicholas Nichols Nixon included in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography published by the University of North Carolina Press (same as Miller’s book), for example, the people that the peanut “planter and pioneer” owned are conspicuous by their absence. It’s noted that prior to the Civil War the area around Wilmington, North Carolina, where Nixon and his family lived, was responsible for five-sixths of commercially grown peanuts in the United States, and that according to his own recollections “it took him some thirty years of ‘toil and experience’ to produce a commercial crop successfully.”

Indeed, it is written that Nixon “developed techniques and practices of peanut farming that became the standard of cultivation of many years,” and that “the commercial development of this crop was due largely to the pioneering activities of Nixon at his Porter’s Neck plantation.”[3] Whose years of unpaid labor and ingenuity actually begat Nixon’s achievement isn’t even hinted at. But among the many men and women were my great-great-great-grandfather William Benjamin Gould and his mother, Elizabeth “Betsy” Moore.

I grew up in the town of Westminster in north central Massachusetts. Not a peanut growing climate, and not a region known for agriculture of any kind. Westminster’s claim to fame was — and remains, I shit you not — crackers. The Westminster Cracker Company was founded in 1828, and though the factory was long-shuttered by the time I was a kid in the 1980s (Westminster Crackers are now made in Vermont, the state I live in today), every day my school bus passed by the iconic red building depicted on boxes and bags of Westminster oyster and “square hearty” crackers eaten all over the country.

In the warmer months my elementary school classes sometimes walked uphill to the town common, where we used the gazebo and a Revolutionary War caisson as playgrounds for hide-and-seek. Our teachers always made sure to point out the stone-walled pound where stray farm animals would be penned until their owners retrieved them. A more formal field trip was to the town library, specifically the usually restricted top floor’s mini-museum of local artifacts that included a giant, dusty Westminster cracker preserved under glass. When I was in the fifth grade, perhaps the most vivid trip was to the historical society’s 18th century Georgian colonial, where we helped cook an entire meal from scratch using methods, technologies, and ingredients from the colonial era. Some students worked on a pie, using lard to make the crust. Some churned butter. I was assigned to the sausage team, seasoning the pork with salt and sage scooped from crocks without measuring spoons. My team and I struggled to fit intestinal casings over the funnel tip of the antique stuffer through which the meat was pressed using a wooden mallet. We cooked the entire meal in the hearth of the open fireplace.

Unlike some of my classmates, I couldn’t trace my ancestors to the Mayflower, and my surname wasn’t shared by any town roads or other landmarks. I knew the list of nationalities my forebears brought with them to the States and rattled them off in the same musical order any time the subject came up: SwedishFinnishScottishDutchFrenchIrish. But apart from my maternal grandfather’s parents, who I knew emigrated from Sweden and Finland in the early 20th century, I had no idea when anyone else in my family tree arrived, never mind how, where, or why. Among other aspects of their lives, I wondered what foods they ate.

One of my most beloved books throughout my childhood was Peter Spier’s People. Oversized, full-color, intricately illustrated, People aims to show children how “Each and every one of us [now more than six billion people] [is] different from all the others.”[4] The top-half of one page, for example, is made up of 56 faces in profile to show kids that “noses come in every shape imaginable.”[5] A two-page spread illustrates the games that people play, from pelote basque to shogi, yoté to kite fighting. There are similar pages for pets, holidays, religions, languages, and clothing. Notably to me now, most of the writing refers to the places where customs, traditions, and architectures exist, or existed, rather than the people themselves, identifying them as such-and-such.[6] For instance, one brief section is devoted to foods some young readers might find unusual, with the caption “What people in one place [emphasis mine] consider a delicacy others would never touch, let alone eat!”[7] This was an early, subtle lesson, I think, in the (not exclusive) power of place that also undercut the false idea that equates culture with biology, an element of what scholars Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields refer to as “racecraft.”

In their essay “Origins of the New South and the Negro Question”, included in the 2012 collection Racecraft, they write, “The effort to redefine race as culture or identity is bound to come a cropper just as did the effort to define race as biology.” And shortly thereafter, “Race as identity breaks down on the irreducible fact that any sense of self intrinsic to persons of African descent is subject to peremptory nullification by forcible extrinsic identification.”

In other words, the fact of my ancestors hailing from France or Holland did not necessarily mean that they ate frog legs and snails, or raw herring, and it certainly didn’t mean I was predisposed to either. But it was possible they ate those foods based on the general places they came from. And because they were my family, and their lives led to mine, knowing what they ate as a part of their daily lives was perhaps a way I could get to know them that was both more comprehensible and more appreciable than a textbook. And now, knowing that other ancestors of mine came from what is now Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali, and lived in the antebellum United States, I feel similarly compelled to explore my connections to them through food. As author and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty writes in the very first sentence of his preface to The Cooking Gene about the Old South, “[It] is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been.”[8]

I was 31 years old when I first learned that I was a descendant of William Benjamin Gould. A second cousin of mine, himself a Gould, had been doing genealogy research, and discovered the book Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. It was written by William Benjamin Gould IV, the first Black professor at Stanford Law School, chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under President Bill Clinton, and my grandmother’s cousin, as it turns out. One afternoon I came home from grad school, flipped open the laptop, checked my email, and both my family and my world grew.

Not much is known about the first William Benjamin Gould prior to 1862, when at the age of 25 he escaped enslavement with seven other men, rowing down the Cape Fear River in the middle of a rainy night twenty-six nautical miles to the Atlantic, where they were picked up by the Union Navy, with which he enlisted and served for the duration of the war. We know that he was a skilled tradesman, a plasterer, his labor hired out by Nicholas Nichols Nixon, presumably, and that one of the buildings he worked on is the now-historic Bellamy Mansion. He lived in a slave quarter in Wilmington, while his mother was enslaved at Porter’s Neck. He knew how to read and write, though it’s not certain where he learned or who taught him. As Nixon was a prominent member of the Episcopal Church, it is suspected Gould attained literacy through that institution. All my life I’d wondered why our family attended Episcopalian services and not any other denomination, and this is almost certainly where that tradition started.

At one point during the war, Gould furloughed on Nantucket, where he visited Cornelia Williams Read, whom he’d known since childhood. The two began a courtship, sending letters to one another until the war ended, at which point Gould discharged in Boston and went straight to the island where they were married at the African Meeting House.

My great-great-great-grandmother Cornelia was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1837, the same year as William. She and her mother, Dianna Williams, were free, at least for a time. Dianna’s sister Julia was married to prominent Black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, and her sister Ann to the Reverend James Crawford of Nantucket. The details aren’t entirely clear, but one current theory is that Cornelia and Dianna were caught without papers en route to visit Julia and Henry, who were doing missionary work in Jamaica. They somehow fell into the hands of a John Newland Maffitt, whose plans were to sell and separate mother and daughter,possibly because they stood to inherit property following the death of Cornelia’s white father.

When word got to the Garnets, they in turn notified the Crawfords. The Reverend, who himself escaped slavery as a younger man, organized fundraising efforts throughout New England and abroad (the Quaker community played a large role, as did a large sum from the Duchess of Sutherland) to purchase Dianna and Cornelia’s freedom. It’s not known how Dianna made her way to Nantucket but in 1858, Crawford, who was light-skinned enough to pass as white, risked his life to travel south posing as a white man, paid the sum for Cornelia, and brought her back to the island, where she lived until at least 1866. That was the year she gave birth to her and William’s first child, Medora, before moving to mainland Massachusetts.[9]

Cornelia and William ultimately had eight children: two daughters and six sons. Of them only one, William Benjamin Gould Jr., had children of their own. My great-grandfather Ernest, the second oldest of four, ended up passing as white and concealing his African American heritage from successive generations. One of the family memories that has gained new context since we learned Ernie’s secret was something he said once to one of my aunts — that he remembered his grandmother cooking “the most wonderful Caribbean food.”

This unspecified food has since been a lodestone for me, the promise of something sensory, knowable, tangible that I might one day recreate and connect to my ancestors across time. What were these meals that Cornelia made for her children and grandchildren, using whatever ingredients and substitutes she could procure in Dedham, Massachusetts, so many miles and ecotones from Charleston? Did my family’s foodways really pass through the Caribbean? Were they part of Gullah Geechee traditions? So many questions to which I may only be able to approximate answers based on probability, not hard evidence. The only food I can reasonably be certain of at this point is the one whose roots are indelibly intertwined with mine: the peanut.

One afternoon this past February, my eldest daughter came home from first grade excited. It was Black History month, and they’d been learning about George Washington Carver. He grew peanuts, she told me. I was excited in turn, because I’d written a book report about Carver when I was her age. It’s one of the few specific assignments I remember. I loved learning about this man who cared about growing things so passionately, who was so brilliant he could take something as small and unassuming as a peanut and turn it into a hundred other things.

When you’re a kid, I imagine, George Washington Carver is an easy historical figure to latch onto and remember because peanuts are everywhere in your life. Even if you’re allergic, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, like pizza and French fries, are depicted in just about every book and TV show made for children. My daughter is also, like me, quietly captivated by people who are skilled at growing. We have a garden, a humble garden, in our backyard, and every year I try to tease a few edible things out of the ground. Last summer one of the crops was carrots (I forgot I needed to thin them and only ended up with a few tiny orange threads), and though I didn’t think she paid the least bit of attention to the garden, in the fall my daughter chose “how to grow a carrot” when given an assignment to create an instructional comic — surprising both her teacher and us.

More recently, on a warm, late-May afternoon I sat in my backyard with my youngest daughter, four-years-old, luring her out of the house with all of its screens to share a bag of roasted peanuts. She gently reminded me that it’s not okay to throw trash on the ground, but I told her in this case it was okay, that the shells could go into the compost, or that birds or mice could haul them off. Within moments of cracking the first few shells open she observed, “these look like little boats, Daddy.” Little does she now know of all the ways that these boats once carried our family. But someday she will.

[1] Jeremy Cherfas, “Peanuts and World History,” Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, accessed May 24, 2020, https://agro.biodiver.se/2017/01/peanuts-and-world-history/

[2] Adrian Miller, Soul Food, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 24.

[3] Herbert R. Paschal, “Nixon, Nicholas Nichols,” NCPedia, accessed May 24, 2020, https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/nixon-nicholas-nichols

[4] Peter Spier, People, (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 1.

[5] Spier, People, 4.

[6] The exceptions, also notably, being “Indian,” “American Indian,” and most in need of revision, “Eskimo.”

[7] Spier, People, 19.

[8] Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene, (New York: HarperCollins, 2017) xii.

[9] William B. Gould IV, Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002); Frances Ruley Karttunen, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, (New Bedford MA: Spinner Publications, 2005).

This essay originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #2: Eat/Shit, published by Beehive Books, 2021.

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Philadelphia-based publisher of the finest in comics and graphic art. New visions, forgotten treasures, paper worlds. www.beehivebooks.com

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Beehive Books

Philadelphia-based publisher of the finest in comics and graphic art. New visions, forgotten treasures, paper worlds. www.beehivebooks.com