22: The peanut is a New World plant. It may have started in Paraguay or Bolivia. Samples found in Peru are 7,600 years old. With the “Columbian Exchange,” the Spanish introduced the peanut in Europe and Africa. It caught on quickly in Africa, where both farmers and cooks were already familiar with a similar plant, the groundnut. It remains extensively cultivated today; in fact, Nigeria’s annual peanut production is about the same as in the U.S. Many African dishes use peanuts.
In the 1700s, the peanut came to the U.S along with enslaved Africans. The first known mention of the peanut was in 1769. One nickname for the peanut, “goober,” came from the Congo language’s word nguba.
Peanuts are not nuts, but legumes, closely related to beans and peas. The most obvious difference is that the bean pods of the peanut grow under the soil.
Peanuts need a predictable growing season: at least four months after the soil warms to 65 degrees. That makes it difficult to grow peanuts commercially in the northern states, where a late thaw or early frost would mean disaster, but they will grow here, and many home gardeners try them as a novelty. When I was a teenager, I managed to grow a few peanut plants to maturity in South Dakota
The name most closely associated with the peanut is George Washington Carver (c.1864-1943). Carver was born enslaved in southwest Missouri, near Joplin. Near the end of the Civil War, he and his mother and sister were kidnapped by Arkansas raiders and were eventually sold off in Kentucky. His master, Moses Carver, hired agents to recover them, but they could only rescue baby George. After the war, Moses and his wife, Susan, a childless couple, raised George and his older brother, James, as their own, and Susan taught George how to read. It is said that Carver was a sickly child, and so Susan had him work with her in the kitchen.
As a teenager, he went to schools in Neosho and Minneapolis, Kansas, and also homesteaded a farm near Minneapolis, even though he was only about 16. The photo below is undated, but I’m guessing that he’s in his older teen years here:
After high school, in 1886, he homesteaded a claim in Ness County, and actually lived in a sod house he built himself. He was accepted by a Presbyterian college in Kansas, but when he arrived to enroll, they refused to admit him because of his race. Then in 1890, he went to Iowa to study art and piano at Simpson College, a Methodist school. His art teacher recognized his talent for painting plants, and encouraged Carver to study botany.
In 1891, Carver transferred to Iowa State, becoming the first black student at that school. He graduated in 1894, then stayed on to earn a Master’s degree, and ultimately become the first black faculty member at the school. Carver Hall on the ISU campus was named in his honor.
Carver as a student at Iowa State, 1893
In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to come to Alabama and head the Agriculture Dept. at the Tuskegee Institute. Carver spent the rest of his life there, and is buried next to Washington on the Tuskegee campus.
Across the south, cotton was king. But at the turn of the century, the boll weevil was attacking more and more acres. Carver urged farmers to consider alternative crops, such as sweet potatoes and peanuts, and to practice crop rotation. Peanuts are especially useful because as a legume (like beans), they transfer nitrogen, a necessary fertilizer, back into the soil.
To accompany this work, Carver developed a wide range of uses for peanuts and other crops. His agricultural bulletins often included recipes. His tireless work in promoting peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes helped save southern agriculture.
In the process, Carver became famous. Even today, for instance, many people take it for granted that he invented peanut butter, even though the Incas seem to have beat him to the punch by only about a thousand years.
Carver followed Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on self-reliance and industrial training, and a downplaying of equality and integration issues. That approach never sat well with some other African American leaders, such as W.E.B. DuBois. Still, the fact that Carver gained such widespread respect in the white community probably helped soften up some whites to the broader civil rights movement.
Carver has twice been honored on U.S. postage stamps, first in 1948, then in 1998
Carver’s personal life has long been a subject of some mystery and fascination. He never married, and lived with a younger male companion in his later years. As a result, some have claimed him as an LGBT icon. He also had a very high-pitched voice, which may have generated speculation, and there also have been reports that he had been castrated. However, contrary to what we would expect in a castrato, Carver also grew to full height and had facial hair.
As a kid, I’d often count the missing digits on my farmer uncles’ hands. Farming is physically dangerous, and the possibility of Carver being castrated, either by some mechanical or animal accident (farm animals can kick!) or as a result of medical malpractice in treating some disease like mumps seems a real possibility. Castrated or not, that may account for Carver’s apparent asexuality.
There are recordings of Carver’s unusual voice. This 2010 segment, from Iowa Public Radio, mentions the castration issue. In any case, the voice is unforgettable.