Monday, March 19, 2012

Get yourself some boiled peanuts!

"I'm in the mountains----home to boiled peanuts and apple cider. Surely everything is congenial and kind here. This man isn't on "America's Most Wanted"." ~ Deena in How Sweet It Is (Bethany House, 2009)

If you haven't seen a sign for boiled peanuts for sale, I doubt you've been in North Carolina's mountain regions. Sometimes the spelling is a bit different, true, but whether it's boiled p-nuts or boiled peenuts, it all means the same: Get out of your car and get yourself a bag. This Southern delicacy cooks inside the bubbling container of water and is enjoyed by folks of all ages from May to November.

Most likely what you'll see when you pull over to park at a roadside store is a man standing beside a 55-gallon drum, stirring peanuts with a long utensil. When you say you'd like some, he'll scoop up a bunch with something that looks like a circular wire basket McDonald's uses to cook french fries in. He'll place your order inside a brown paper bag. He might even give you an extra bag for the shells. If you plan on eating the peanuts during the rest of your ride, you'll probably need that extra bag.

So, what exactly are boiled peanuts? Ah, let me tell you about this part of Southern cuisine and culture. Although I must confess that I didn't grow up on these offerings and had never heard of nor had a boiled peanut until I was married and my husband and I stopped at a rickety fruit and vegetable stand somewhere outside of Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Boiled peanuts are "green" (raw) peanuts that have spent a considerable amount of time in boiling salted water. Yes, they're damp, soft, sometimes drippy. To eat, remove the shell. Then pop one into your mouth and chew. These are best when eaten outside so Mama doesn't complain about empty shells all over the living room carpet. Many claim you need a bottle of cola or a glass of sweet tea to drink along with these nuts.

You can purchase boiled peanuts in cans at grocery stores. You can even make your own. Here's what you need----a large pot, water, plenty of salt and about a pound of raw peanuts, known as green. For every gallon of water, you need 1/4 cup of salt. Some add cajun spices to their water or a combination of salt and seafood spices. Bring the water and peanuts to a boil and continue to let boil for four to six hours. Then turn off the burner and let the pot cool as the peanuts continue to absorb the salty water. You might want to try a test batch first and then after eating them decide whether you need to add more or less salt the next time.

Keep in mind that boiled peanuts you buy fresh from a country store or make yourself, don't have a long shelf life at all. They need to be consumed within two days of purchase or they'll taste like something the cat dragged in from the barn.

And if you are really desiring to get into the flavor of the land, you can't say boiled peanuts in any sort of drawl but Southern. To perfect this, keep your mouth closed a little and then let these words roll around inside your mouth before letting them out: Boll'd peanuts.

For more boiled peanut experiences, check out these videos of all sorts of encounters at Boiled Peanut World.

Friday, March 16, 2012

All Things Southern: Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola

Now, when many think of the South, images from Gone with the Wind, sweet tea, fried chicken, and Southern drawls, all come to mind. Of course, those living in North Carolina and Georgia know that there is more to Southern beverages than sweet tea. There's Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola. Both of these drinks have their (kola) roots in the South.

I'll start with Pepsi because I live in North Carolina and have been to the Pepsi Museum in New Bern, the home of Pepsi-Cola. The way it was told to me is that Caleb Bradham, a pharmacist in New Bern, came up with a remedy for the upset tummy. His concoction of carbonated water, vanilla, rare oils and kola nuts were the ingredients for a drink he later shared with his pharmacy's soda fountain customers. "Ah," they said, "this is good stuff," and fondly called it "Brad's Drink". Caleb changed the name to Pepsi-Cola (does anyone know why?) and as the drink's popularity grew, he opened a Pepsi-Cola Company in the back of his pharmacy. He got a patent for the beverage's syrup in 1903 and decided he wanted people all over the country to enjoy his product. Allowing for bottling franchises helped his business to grow. The first franchises were in Durham and Charlotte, NC. What were his advertising slogans? "Exhilarating, Invigorating, Aids Digestion". And with those descriptions, Caleb sold 7,968 gallons of his syrup in 1903. The rest, as they say, is history.

Georgia is home to Coke, and like the origins of Pepsi, the story behind Coca-Cola started with a pharmacist in Atlanta. One afternoon in 1886, John Pemberton stirred up a sweet-smelling caramel-colored liquid made of kola and coca leaf extract. He must have thought it was good because he took it over to his local pharmacy, Jacobs' Pharmacy. At the soda fountain, the mixture was combined with carbonated water. Customers were offered a taste, liked it, and the pharmacy put it on sale. Each glass cost five cents.  

Frank Robinson, John's bookkeeper, named the mixture Coca-Cola. The beginnings only reflected meager sales----just nine glasses of Coca-Cola were sold each day.  Well, that was just the early stages. Since then, Coca-cola has morphed into a 1.7 billion drinks sold-a-day industry.

The question that has been debated over the year is: Did Coke once have actual cocaine as one of its ingredients? According to, it once held a small trace. Sources show that back in 1885 it was not uncommon to have cocaine in patented medicines. In 1902, the drink had 1/400 of a grain of cocaine per ounce of syrup, but by 1929 it was pretty near cocaine-free.

Of course, since the two products are similiar, it is often asked: Which do you prefer---Coke or Pepsi? You can be a real Southerner and like either, since both beverages were born in the South.

As for me, I have to say I don't drink soda, and for the rare times, I might, I cannot tell the difference between Pepsi or Coke. Some claim Coke is too sweet.

I do have a fondness for Pepsi, however. And it has nothing to do with taste. As a child, I remember my grandfather's old freezer at the hardware and lumber company he and my grandmother owned in Sandston, Virginia. The freezer, which was the size of an ice box, was always filled with bottles of Pepsi-Cola. When you popped off the cap of one, smushy ice that had formed inside, rose to the top, along with the carbonated bubbles. You had to be quick to get your mouth on the bottle top or you'd lose all that goodness down the side of the bottle.

I can still hear my granddaddy say on a sweltering July day, as he trudged up the steps from the lumber yard to the adjoining hardware store in his blue overralls covered in sawdust, "I'm gonna get me a Pepsi." Some days, I suppose when he was in dire need, he'd holler up to my grandma, "Patsie, get me a Pepsi!"

I'd stand by the old Westinghouse, my thirst mounting, hopeful. He'd enter the store through the back entrance, smelling of pine, flecks of wood on the rim of his ball cap. He'd open the freezer, take out a bottle and then always hand me one. I think I liked the frothy ice inside the bottle that turned a caramel color the best.

So if I'm going to really enjoy a Pepsi, it has to come from a bottle, chilled, with slushy ice---inside the bottle. The aroma of sawdust and sound of an electric saw adds to the experience, too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Being Invited

Ever get an invitation to a wedding, where you so wanted to attend, but then realized that the invite was really addressed to the previous owners of your home? Well, that happened to me. The invitation was beautiful, the way certain wedding invitations can be. The reception was to be held at some fancy country club in New York. I toyed with the idea . . . What if I showed up? I'd know no one, but hey, there would be free prime rib and lobster bisque.

Ever attend the wrong wedding? Nope? Me neither. But my character Samantha Bravencourt does. She gets an invitation saying Avery Jones is getting married. Only, it's not the Avery Jones she went to college with.

A Wedding Invitation, my fourth novel with Bethany House Publishers, was both fun and nostalgic to write. Fun, because I enjoy creating zany characters with names like Beanie and Little. Those are two of the boarders at Aunt Dovie's house in Winston-Salem, NC.

The nostalgic part of the creating came as I recalled my own days at a refugee camp where I taught in the 1980s. My novel is loosely based on my experience there. The camp was located in Bataan, Philippines and housed over 17,000 Indochinese refugees. I taught English to the children.

The Amerasians are who intrigued me. These half Vietnamese, half American (U.S.) were treated poorly and often given no education in Vietnam. I got to know many of these kids and included one in particular in A Wedding Invitation. Lien is purely fictitious, but she is a component of Amerasian girls I had as students. These kids wanted to belong and be accepted, only they didn’t usually achieve that goal well because they were often rude and loud. Perhaps that was the only way they’d get any attention.

Lien strives for this, showing us that we all have the need to be invited, accepted, and befriended. She learns that God invites us, too. In his eyes, we are each accepted, forgiven, and loved with an everlasting love.

What a great world it would be if we could reach over and beyond society's prejudices and accept those we live near and work with. When we do this, we open our hearts and lives to some priceless gems. That's eventually what Samantha realizes about Lien. Lien is funny, intelligent, insightful, and grateful. Of course, the time it takes for Sam to realize these characteristics about the Amerasian is lengthy. But the result is a friendship well worth the trip.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

All Things Southern: Grits

"I believe grits is one of God's finer creations."
~ Nicole, in Rain Song (2008, Bethany House)

I'm trying to be faithful to post every so often about things that are truly Southern. So far I've written about oatmeal bread, moonshine and Krispy Kreme donuts (scroll around to find these blog posts here). There are countless other aspects of the South I want to touch on. Yet, it seems that life keeps getting in the way of composing those thoughts, which is crazy, because I think, a true Southerner understands that life should be lived slowly, like a winding brook, with time to wade barefooted--not rushed and harried. I should be like that lazy creek up in the Smoky Mountains and take time to breathe and observe instead of being so set on deadlines and that ol' instilled-in-me work ethic.

True, I live in North Carolina, and we are graced to be part of the South. I wasn't always a Southerner because I was born and raised in Japan. (I heard some of the missionaries speaking Japanese with Southern accents, and didn't want to be like them. Sigh. As children, we do have our aversions.) However, my roots are in Virginia and North Carolina, so really, even though I have the love of sushi, seaweed, and broiled eel (unagi) running through me, I also have grits, cornbread, and sweet tea in my veins. My Mama from Richmond would make iced tea and grits for us as children; I have fond memories of both at our home in Awaji.

I've traveled to many countries and written about them in my novels, but I've been labeled as "knowing how to write about the South" by reviewers. Me? I look at the calendar and realize I should know about the South. After all, not only are my roots here, but I've now lived in North Carolina for 24 years. Hard to imagine that I've had time to have a childhood in Japan and live here for 24 years when I think of myself as such a youngin'.

So let's talk about that true Southern delicacy---grits. I've lived long enough to know that many people don't have a clue as to what grits are. Many turn their noses up at just hearing the word.
"Grits? Yuck. Sounds like gritty and gross and gravel."
And there are those who refuse to even try them, including my Yankee/European husband.

Grits should be tried because they are:
a) healthy for you, made from broken grains of corn, rich in iron and calcium
b) easy to prepare (there are even boxes of instant grits)
c) a versatile food, which can be covered with butter, salt or cheese (or all three) and eaten at any meal
d) wonderful when served with shrimp or red-eye gravy
e) delicious in a casserole or fried and eaten with maple syrup
f) possibly the closest to Manna from Heaven the world will ever know (according to many real Southerners)

Please, don't let anyone steer you away from these lovely white pieces of broken corn. Welcome grits into your life today! Put a little South in your mouth!

And on another note, grits have another meaning, too. What's that? you ask. Well, if you've been to Cracker Barrel and seen the T-shirts with GRITS printed on them, you know that grits is an acronym for Girls Raised in the South.

Speaking of those girls, if you want to listen to Brantley Gilbert sing his country song about "ain't nothing like a woman Southern born and bred" then listen to G.R.I.T.S. here.

And if you want to know what kind of blessing to say when a bowl of hot grits sits before you, laugh a little at this website.

Learn more about grits and recipes for them at GRITS. Surprise your family tonight!