The delicious aroma of homegrown peanuts slowly roasting in the kitchen on a chilly afternoon transports Joyce Hanzelka and Beverly Freeman back in time. The Texas natives, one who still lives on a farm and the other now an urban dweller, recall treasured autumn peanut rituals.
A peanut crib of memories
When Beverly Freeman of Sugar Land, Texas, was growing up, she looked forward to her mother’s annual fall announcement.
“We need to go down to your grandma’s and pick peanuts. It’s time to make your daddy some peanut brittle,” Mrs. Lou Ila Clute would say.
That’s how the mother-daughter annual pilgrimage to the peanut crib began.
Beverly’s grandparents, Leonard and Minnie Neyland, lived on 240 acres of rolling farmland about 10 miles down a sandy lane near Marquez, Texas. They were farmers in the truest sense ˗ working from before sunrise until dark to grow all of the family’s food, as well as commercial crops of watermelons, cotton and cattle.
The long hot summers and sandy soil on the Neyland’s farm were perfect for growing peanuts and they usually had a bumper crop. The peanut patch at the back of their vegetable garden was just big enough to supply the needs of the extended family for the winter.
“Granddaddy harvested the peanuts by hand. Using a pitchfork, he loosened the earth around a plant. Then he pulled the entire bush from the ground with the peanuts attached.
“After shaking the dirt off, he hung the bushes in the barn to dry for a few days. He stored them in a little wooden building called a peanut crib,” Beverly says.
Mid-November sights and scents
“The crib was usually so full that I had to climb up the side of the building, using the hand-hewn logs as a ladder. I’d crawl through an opening near the roof and jump into the soft cushion of the plants.
“Mother, who always wore a dress, didn’t think entering that way was very ladylike, so I would pull enough plants away from the door for her to squeeze in and climb up to the top with me,” she recalls.
“I can still visualize the dusty, drying plants and fresh peanuts.”
The peanuts were at the perfect stage for eating raw, and Beverly admits to stuffing herself while filling her tin bucket. When her mother was satisfied that they had a sufficient amount, Beverly would lower the full bucket down and make her way out of the crib the same way she had entered.
A special fall treat
“From then on in the fall, we ate peanuts raw, roasted and boiled, but our favorite was Mother’s homemade peanut brittle.
“I loved to watch her as she mixed the sugar, water and corn syrup in a huge, heavy skillet on the stove. She stirred harder and harder as the mixture thickened and then added the peanuts. Mom never owned a candy thermometer; she knew by instinct when the temperature was perfect.
In her mind’s eye, Beverly can see her mother pulling the pot from the stove and adding the baking soda. She stirred quickly as the mixture foamed, adding salt and butter at just the right time.
Waiting was so hard!
“Mom would pour the steaming candy onto a buttered cookie sheet to cool. The aroma was amazing.”
For the next couple of hours, Beverly checked back regularly because it was her job to break the golden brittle into small pieces. She admits that more than a few tiny pieces of the golden sweetness melted in her mouth.
“I can still taste it!” Beverly adds.
If you’d like to make your own peanut brittle memories, here’s the recipe that Beverly’s mother wrote out many years ago.
Peanuts don’t grow on trees
Beverly says people are often surprised to learn that peanuts, sometimes called goobers, are not nuts at all. They are legumes related to peas and beans. Peanut plants are unique because their flowers grow aboveground while the pods containing the seeds grow in the soil.
For old time’s sake
“Joe and I only produce enough peanuts now for our own use,” Joyce Hanzelka explains. “But when I was growing up near Swiss Alp, Texas, my dad sowed about 50 to 60 acres to peanuts on our farm and other acreage that he rented.”
Even back then, she looked forward to the annual harvest. In fact, Joyce couldn’t wait!
Watch out for those green peanuts
“Mama would take me to the field with her when she helped my dad. I’d sit by the auger and eat the green peanuts out of the washtub she was filling.
“Let me tell you, green peanuts will give you a stomachache!”
Joyce always liked picking peanuts more than gathering corn or picking cotton.
“Maybe it was because the days were cooler and it was the fall of the year,” she says. “Our peanuts were ready in late September or early October.”
Joyce still enjoys raising a peanut crop in their garden at Weimar, Texas. Although Joe didn’t grow up planting peanuts, he has become an avid grower, as well.
The Hanzelkas dig the peanuts in their garden patch by hand. Then they wait just as Joyce’s father did.
Back in the day
“Years ago, Daddy would plow the peanuts out and let them dry a little before we went up and down the rows using a pitchfork to gather them in small piles. Then four of us, two working on either side, would fork the small piles onto the trailer that Daddy pulled with the tractor.
“The next step was to thresh the peanuts. The peanuts filled burlap sacks and the straw went into a pile to be baled.”
Once sacked, the Fillips hauled the peanuts home and stored them in the barn to dry. To hasten the process in days to come, they would drag the sacks outside to take advantage of the fall sunshine and lower humidity.
“If a stray rain shower came through we had to move fast to move them back inside because we didn’t want to get them wet.”
31 miles was a long trip
When Joyce’s dad was satisfied that the peanuts were ready to market, the family would load the sacks on the trailer. Then they’d head out to a peanut wholesaler in Giddings, Texas, 31 miles away.
“That was quite a load for that old pickup.”
“I always remember when the man from at the wholesale company would slash the sacks to test the peanuts for moisture content, which set the price. Daddy would cringe,” Joyce adds.
The only time Joyce remembers her dad varying his harvesting method was in 1961. Hurricane Carla dropped so much rain on the Swiss Alp community that Mr. Fillip couldn’t get in the fields without getting his tractor stuck. That year, the Fillip family hand dug all their peanuts wearing rubber boots.
Heirloom seed eventually played out
For more than 50 years, Joyce and Joe grew peanuts from her dad’s seed. When it eventually stopped producing well, they ordered packages of runner, Virginia and Spanish peanuts from a seed catalog.
Joyce says not only does each variety look different it tastes different, too.
Joyce and Joe conclude that growing peanuts is like any other crop. Until it is harvested, you can’t count on the final yield.
Texas peanuts in the big picture
Ranking second in U.S production, Texas farmers typically grow between 165,000 to 190,000 acres of peanuts. AGRILIFE The greatest part of the Texas crop are produced within 90 miles of Lubbock, 491 miles north of Joyce and Joe’s farm.
In Fayette County where Joyce grew up, commercial peanut crops are a thing of the past.
“There are no reported acres of commercial peanuts growing here now,” says Scott Willey, Texas A&M AgriLife County Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources in La Grange.
“If you hear of some, I’d like to know,” he adds.
For Joyce and Beverly, the memories of peanut harvests always will be near and dear to their hearts.
I can almost smell the aroma of roasting peanuts! How about you?
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