Origin and History
The peanut plant originated in South America, most likely in Brazil and Peru. It was grown as far north as Mexico by the time the Spanish reached the Americas. When the explorers returned to Spain, they brought peanuts with them. Later, European traders were responsible for spreading peanuts to Africa and Asia. When Africans were brought to North America as slaves, they brought peanuts with them, returning the native nut back to the Americas.
Until the 1800s, peanuts were known variously throughout the American South as groundnuts, peas, goober peas, monkey nuts, pindars and goobers. The terms “pindar” and “goober” were African tribal words. Because they were difficult to grow and harvest, they were not widely cultivated. They were grown commercially in South Carolina, but mainly as a cocoa substitute, as a source for oil, and to feed livestock. The first notable increase in U.S. peanut consumption came in 1860 with the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. Soldiers on both sides ate peanuts as a convenient source of protein.
Shortly thereafter, promoter P.T. Barnum began selling peanuts at his circus. The snack caught on, and soon peanuts were being consumed at ball games and in theater balconies (which led to the creation of the term “peanut gallery”).
In 1903, botanist George Washington Carver began his research on peanuts at Tuskegee Institute. He identified many ways peanuts could be used in products such as paints, dyes, shampoos and hand soap. Carver recommended that peanuts be cultivated as a viable cash crop in the South to supplement traditional cotton farming.
Today, more than half of the world's peanuts are grown in India and China. In the United States, peanuts are primarily grown in the South. The average American consumes more than six pounds of peanuts and peanut products, primarily peanut butter, each year.
In cooking, peanuts are most flavorful when roasted. They are also used as a garnish in Chinese dishes and are a primary ingredient in the hiker’s staple, gorp, or “good old raisins and peanuts.” Peanuts are a great source of folic acid. They are also a great source of protein and B vitamins. One ounce, or a small handful, of peanuts, contains 2 grams of fiber and 5 percent of the daily requirement for vitamin E.