How Peanut Soup Became A Southern Staple

From the time you were in grade school devouring Mom's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, George Washington Carver was at least mentioned a time or two in history class. A pioneer in sustainable farming practices, he shaped the way early-20th-century Southern cotton farmers implemented crop rotation after boll weevils destroyed their crops, according to the National Peanut Board. Equal parts botanist, inventor, and food scientist, Carver turned to the peanut as a certain saving grace. The board points to many benchmarks that Carver set, but the one you're probably most familiar with is the shelf-stable, nutritional powerhouse: peanut butter.

It's unclear where peanuts originated, but, the National Peanut Board surmises its probable homeland as South America dating 3,500 years ago before making its way to Africa via Spanish explorers. Africans reveled in the legumes' versatility. In fact, Virginia Carolinas Peanuts adds that Africans once regarded the plant as one of the few bearing a soul. The Virginia Marketplace outlines its American heritage starting as American-slave food before free Americans ever knew it as a crop. It was Virginians who first grew America's commercial crops of peanuts in the 1800s, eventually earning its own designation, Virginia Peanuts.

Carver's list of some 300 uses for peanuts spread like the very roots upon which the legumes grew — but, one specific dish would become a Southern staple: peanut soup.

Peanut soup's popularity grew

Akin to white bean soup, peanut soup made its American debut prior to the Carver bulletins, per The Virginia Marketplace. Still, Carver published the largest collection of peanut soup recipes, including a bisque. Texas A&M lists his basic version, which consisted of a roux-like mixture of ground peanuts, flour, and butter cooked with milk for a smooth yet filling soup.

This Southern staple's popularity knew no bounds with recipe interpretations found outside of the South in community cookbooks like one published in 1914 by First Methodist Episcopal Church in Hamilton, Ohio. Meanwhile, it started showing up on restaurant menus such as the one at The Regency Room within Virginia's Hotel Roanoke.

When the luxury hotel reopened in 1939, then chef Fred Brown knew the Virginia peanut needed a place at the table. "If you've been to Hotel Roanoke. You know Peanut Soup. It's a classic," current executive Chef Stephen DeMarco told Tasting Table in an interview, "We have stayed true to the original recipes and it's astonishing how much attention and recipe requests we receive." While DeMarco notes there's no direct connection to Carver's recipe, he recognizes its cultural significance by serving nearly 15 gallons of his vegan version of peanut soup weekly.

Whether you whip up a peanut soup recipe at home, or savor the Southern staple at your favorite restaurant, as Live Kindly notes, "[it's] a way to acknowledge the spiritual and culinary gifts our ancestors gave us." We couldn't agree more!