Mr. Peanut: Virginia’s Agricultural Aristocrat

By Rachel C. Kirby 

The Recipe:

* A Peanut Festival With George Washington Carver
(his own original recipes)
Peanut Cake with Molasses

2 cups molasses
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup lard
2 cups hot water
4 cups flour
1 pint ground peanuts
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves
¼ nutmeg, grated
1 heaping teaspoon soda
1 egg

Mix the peanuts, spices, and soda with the flour; heap the measure of flour slightly; mix the molasses, sugar, lard, and water; stir in the flour; add the beaten egg last. Bake in shallow dripping pan, and sprinkle with powdered sugar just before putting in the oven.

*George Washington Carver, agricultural chemist, worked his way through high school and college to become the world-famous scientist whose labor at Tuskegee Institute would go far to change the eating habits of the South.[1]

***

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Regional Map of Virginia. Source: Virginia Campgrounds.

What is Emporia on parade? The parade of the 53rd Annual Virginia Peanut Festival began with a sheriff’s car rolling down the street, blue flashing lights interrupting the dull gray sky, offering the briefest break in days of rain. Candidates in the upcoming local election used the parade as part of their campaign trail, holding signs and throwing candy to children. Members of the Board of Supervisors for Greensville County drove by in a white pick-up truck with peanut plants draped around the side-view mirrors, the green leafy stems sagging in the drizzling mist. A stream of civic representatives, elected by the people to serve the people – or at least by those who voted – progressed down the wet street. [2] This parade was not for them. This parade was for an anthropomorphized peanut. It was for Mr. Peanut, a paradoxical combination of southern agriculture and Virginia aristocracy.

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Peanut Growth in the U.S.A. Source: National Peanut Board.

Deceptively, Virginia peanuts, also referred to as goobers and goober peas, are not grown exclusively in Virginia. Virginias are a type of peanut harvested throughout the Southeast, and they make up about fifteen percent of the United States annual peanut crops.[3] The sandy soil of Southside Virginia produces particularly large and crunchy Virginias, making the state home to the “Cadillac” of peanuts.[4] Consequently, Mr. Peanut’s identity is fundamentally linked to Virginia as a place. Mr. Peanut is Virginian and he is southern. While his outward appearance may not suggest an agricultural upbringing, his origins, genealogy, and reputation – his place in the Virginian aristocracy – depend on his deep-seated connection to the land itself. This connection is one he shares with the people of Emporia. Even though the state produces only one percent of the nation’s domestic peanuts[5], it is the leading cash crop and source of agricultural income for Greensville County, bringing in over four and a half million dollars in 2009.[6] The success of the peanut gives the residents of the small town something to appreciate, as they acknowledge the central role agriculture plays in their community.

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Mr. Peanut stops and waves to the crowds at the 2015 Annual Virginia Peanut Festival.

Strolling down the street, Mr. Peanut was on display. He was the peanut of the hour. The citizens of Emporia, his fans, lined the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of their sophisticated celebrity. The edible – yet inedible – gentleman-like nut wore a monocle the diameter of a deluxe tin of Virginia peanuts. Above his umber shell sat a black top-hat that read “PLANTER’S MR. PEANUT,” announcing his title to the few who may not know his import.

The Annual Virginia Peanut Festival is the only occasion the residents of Emporia have to engage Mr. Peanut in his animated-form. He emerges once a year, waving at the crowd like a royal greeting his subjects. Though the 2015 festival was lightly attended and threatened by rain, Mr. Peanut still graced the community with his presence as he has done annually for the past fifty-three years. Accompanied by his court jester – Ronald McDonald – he posed for the sparse crowd that was thinned by threatening rain. He was the culmination of dignitaries, the final bon vivant. As the eighteenth entry in the parade, he was the embodiment of 18th-century colonial culture as established by the founding families of Virginia.

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Mr. Peanut and Ronald McDonald at the 2015 Festival.

Early in the state’s existence as an English colony, the newly-immigrated residents established a social hierarchy through which they maintained the wealth and status of their English culture in their newly-claimed homeland. They created a Virginian aristocracy.[7] Rather than lords and serfs, however, Virginia’s hierarchy consisted of masters and enslaved people. Both groups were connected to the land: the planter class owned the land, while the enslaved African and African American people worked it, producing crops for the consumption and profit of the propertied classes. Generations later, status remains in the ability to claim a connection to the First Families of Virginia[8], a title granted to the descendants of specific wealthy, influential, (white) English colonial settlers who were influential in the shaping of the early colony and state. Yet it is also a title that excludes the early generations of enslaved people, white yeomen farmers, and the indigenous communities who called this land home far before colonization.

Much like the people in early Virginia who grew and ate the crop, the peanut is an immigrant. Europeans and peanuts both arrived in what is now the United States as outsiders, brought to the “new world” through colonial exploration, imperialism, and international exchange.[9] Peanuts originated in South America, and were carried to Europe with Spanish and Portuguese explorers. From there, they traveled to China and to Africa, spanning the majority of the globe. It was not European explorers, however, that brought these nuts (technically legumes) to the colonies that became the United States; in the seventeenth century, enslaved people brought peanuts with them from Africa on ships, and the nuts eventually became a ubiquitous crop throughout the southeast.[10]

Peanuts are not a glamorous food. Colonial cookbooks ignore the crop, and ingredient lists are void of the inclusion of the goober. The nuts were consistently associated with soil, necessity, and labor, as they were grown by enslaved people and fed to farm animals. Meanwhile, histories of African American food embrace the peanut, acknowledging the central role it has played in their foodways and celebrating the accomplishments of leaders like George Washington Carver whose “more than 200 discoveries for various uses of the peanut, sweet potato and other products of the soil greatly lessened the miseries of southern farmers both Negro and white.”[11] Though excluded from the worlds of fine dining, the peanut is sustenance. It was not a food of success, but a food of survival. The nut’s racial and class associations remained even as legalized slavery ended: peanuts were the working mans’ food. They were the food of the peanut gallery, the rowdy and cheap section of the theater, not the private box seats.[12] It would seem that a peanut would choose to wear flannel and boots long before it would don a suit and hat. Mr. Peanut personifies a paradox, for he is a fancy peanut.

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The Evolution of Mr. Peanut. Source: JugularNYC.com.

Mr. Peanut, descended from immigrant stock, is the spokesman for a company established by another immigrant. Italian-born Pennsylvania resident Amedeo Obici founded Planters Peanuts in 1906,[13] and in 1916 put out a call for logos that would help build a brand for his goobers. Obici wanted a logo to distinguish his peanuts from the competitors’ product; his nuts were not to be mistaken for any other average nut. His were to be distinguished from the rest, noted for their status and desired for their fine quality. Fourteen year-old Antonio Gentile[14] from Suffolk, Virginia, a peanut-growing community neighboring Emporia, submitted a sketch. His peanut with legs won him the contest and the five dollar prize.[15] Guided by the new black-tie-ready Mr. Peanut, Planters nuts were able to transition from holding associations with lower-class production and consumption to being a product of status, desired by members of high-society.  To fit into a world with strict social requirements, solidified by the recent addition of a tuxedo jacket, Mr. Peanut’s appearance relies on conventions of distinction, leisure, frivolity, and good taste. But despite Mr. Peanut’s upscale attire, peanuts themselves are not bourgeois.

Mr. Peanut is in disguise. The cane, monocle and white gloves obscure Mr. Peanut’s ambiguously sepia-toned body. De-accessorized, Mr. Peanut is just a creature of the earth. He dresses up, masquerading as a person of wealth and social status, characteristics not usually allotted to those who cultivate peanuts, but qualities to which a rural peanut-farming community can aspire. Even wearing a tuxedo and embracing his identity as a self-invented man, Mr. Peanut cannot deny his origins. In his climactic moment in the parade, he is not just a product of the land. He was the gentile representative of Greensville County’s largest cash-crop, and its source of agricultural pride.

Watching the parade from First Presbyterian Church, Emporia, Virginia, 1994.  Kirby Family Photos.
Watching the parade from First Presbyterian Church, 1994. Kirby Family Photos.

The people of Emporia came to the parade to see Mr. Peanut and participate in the pomp and circumstance of the occasion. I, too, came for the festivities. I grew up in Emporia and spent my childhood excitedly anticipating the festival and the opportunity to see the walking, talking nut. My family left the community in 2001, and 2015 was the first time I attended the festival in fourteen years. In those fourteen years I continued to recognize and appreciate Mr. Peanut’s significance, but I also gained distance. Living away from the place of celebration, I came to recognize the paradoxical nature of Mr. Peanut, what he symbolizes, and what comprises his reality. I came to the 2015 parade to reexamine Mr. Peanut, the product of agricultural Virginia that is branded to market to the old aristocracy. The parade is the community’s homecoming, an occasion for the residents of Emporia and Greensville County to gather together regardless of race, class, and relationship to the land. In this moment, Mr. Peanut, a common goober pea presenting himself as an aristocrat, is surrounded by those who celebrate his status as the finest paradox rooted in Virginia.

_____________________________________________________

Thank you to Ellen Saunders Duncan for traveling with  me to Emporia, Virginia and helping me photograph and reflect on the festival.

[1] Recipe and additional information from: Sue Bailey Thurman, Editor, The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro: The National Council of Negro Women, 1958, Reprint, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 6.

[2] Much of the structure and concept of this introduction is modeled in Chapter 3, “A Bourgeois Puts His World in Order: The City as a Text.” Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1984.

[3] Jon Krampner, Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 9.

[4] “Peanuts,” Virginia.gov, accessed November 30, 2015, http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/vagrown/peanuts.shtml.

[5] Krampner, Creamy & Crunchy, 17.

[6] “County Data Summary, Franklin-Greensville,” online PDF, United States Department of Agriculture: National Agricultural Statistics Service, Accessed November 30, 2015, http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Virginia/Publications/Annual_Statistical_Bulletin/page92-9310.pdf.; “USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Virginia Field Office,” United States Department of Agriculture: National Agricultural Statistics Service, Accessed November 30, 2015, http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Virginia/Publications/Annual_Statistical_Bulletin/.

[7] Louis B. Wright, The First Gentlemen of Virginia: Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial Ruling Class, (San Marino, California: Henry E. Huntington Library & Art Gallery, 1940), 38-39.

[8] “Virginia’s Colonial Dynasties,” Virginia Historical Society, accessed November 30, 2015, http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/virginias-colonial-dynasties.

[9] Andrew F. Smith, Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 12.

[10] Krampner, Creamy & Crunchy, 4.

[11] Sue Bailey Thurman, The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro: The National Council of Negro Women, 8.

[12] Ibid, 23.

[13] Andrew F. Smith, Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, 49.

[14] Ibid, 53.

[15] Kathleen Franz, “Mr. Peanut and Antonio Gentile: A trademark that defined a life,” O Say Can You See? Stories from the National Museum of History (blog), May 6, 2014, http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2014/05/mr-peanut-and-antonio-gentile-a-trademark-that-defined-a-life.html.