Coke and Peanuts

Coke and Peanuts

Back when I was a preschooler in the ’60s, I’d beg my daddy to let me tag along with him on his weekly trips to the farmers’ co-op in town. Okay, I didn’t so much beg as I did scurry into his truck and wait with the certainty that he couldn’t possibly say no. The reasons behind my insistence on going along on this excursion were twofold. It was an escape from our quiet Tennessee farm for a taste of the city (Kenton, population 1,495 at the time), an outing I otherwise made only on Sunday mornings, when we went to church and everything else in town was closed. It also meant I got to indulge in my Coke-and-peanuts habit.

Daddy and I would pull into the gravel lot of the co-op, park alongside the other dirt-encrusted pickup trucks, and make our way to the low building with a dull corrugated-metal roof and walls that smelled of burlap and old wood. There we’d find a handful of farmers sitting around, their tractor allegiances displayed on their caps. (My daddy was a John Deere man.) Aside from selling seed and fertilizer, the co-op constituted the only social outlet most farmers had outside of church. We usually found them discussing crops, either mourning the lack of rain or lamenting its excess. It wasn’t a place to linger all afternoon. Just a place to sit for a spell.

But before taking a seat on the odd chair or packing crate, my daddy, just like every other farmer, would first drop 15 cents into the cigar box on the counter. He’d pull a glass bottle of Coke from the chest-style vending machine that’d forgotten how to accept change and grab a pack of Lance’s Spanish-Roasted Peanuts from the rack on the wall. Then he’d lean back and luxuriate in the break from the vagaries of an occupation that relied on the good graces of the Lord, all while taking part in one of the South’s true culinary eccentricities.

The ritual, a sweet Southern tradition, is simple: Open the bottle of Coke and take a couple of swigs. Tear off the corner of the cellophane sleeve–one of those single serving-size packages that contain no more than a handful of peanuts, the ones with the rusty skins still attached–and shake some nuts into the bottle. Then drink. The first few sips are the best, when the Coke is at its coldest and the peanuts at their salty crunchiest. If you linger, the Coke gets warm, the peanuts turn soggy, and the whole thing is about as appealing as drinking from an old bottle that’s been dredged from the bottom of a pond. This treasured custom is, to us Southerners born before LBJ took office, what the tea ceremony is to the Japanese.

Somewhere around the age of six, I decided I was big enough to quit sharing with my daddy, who, I’m quite certain, was happy to be free of my backwashing ways. My first try, I grabbed both sides of the bag and ripped the top completely open, which left me with no way to corral the peanuts into the narrow bottle opening. Most of the nuts missed their mark, bouncing off my legs and onto the rough wooden floor, where they remained—the three-second rule not being applicable in a place where people wear the same boots they used to tromp through pig droppings. Sacrificing those few peanuts was just as well, seeing as I hadn’t yet figured out that I had to first sip some of the soda so as to make room in the bottle for the nuts. Still, enough of the nuts made it in for me to succumb to this early experience of mixing sweet and salty.

Witness to this first feeble attempt was our sometimes farmhand Kinch (Mr. Kinch, to me). The next time my daddy and I came in, Mr. Kinch bought me a Coke and a pack of peanuts, squatted down alongside me, and sat me on his knee. “This here’s how you do it, Sister,” he said, taking my tiny hands into his large, roughened ones and gently guiding me through the requisite steps.

It wasn’t long before I became adept at assembling this Southern-bred cocktail. Bottle in hand, I’d lean back against a mound of seed corn or cottonseed sacks, propping the rear legs of my chair the way I’d seen the men do. I’d take a languid swig and pick at the rusty red peanut skins that clung to my mouth in a studied fashion with my thumb and ring finger, imitating the grown-ups I’d seen picking bits of tobacco from their lips while smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

Coke and peanuts wasn’t something we indulged in at home. Sipping “Co-Cola,” as it was called in the South–we Southerners never having met a syllable we wouldn’t lop off to conserve energy–to quench one’s thirst was considered wasteful. My mother actually kept a couple of bottles on hand at all times, but they were strictly for medicinal purposes, much like aspirin, calamine lotion, and Merthiolate. If you had an upset stomach, Coke was the cure. Despite this, I never connected it with being sick, but rather with the promise of feeling better.

I once tried substituting canned Coke, but it was patently absurd–it’s nigh unto impossible to make peanuts flow out of a can. I’d never even consider diminishing the tradition by pouring Coke and peanuts into a glass. I don’t think people outside the South understand unless they are, in fact, displaced Southerners, but there’s something about gripping that curvy green glass bottle and tilting it just so, at that perfect 40° angle that offers up a trickle of Coke with an attendant peanut or two in each swig, that makes for one of the most satisfying sensations imaginable.

I still approach the Coke-and-peanuts ritual with reverence, though I consider myself a Californian these days. It takes me straight back to those excursions into town with my daddy, when the two of us shared a little together time riding in the pickup with the windows down, watching for wildlife along the roadside, the clean Tennessee air wafting through the cabin. Completing these trips with Coke and peanuts was ritual. Sacramental, even.

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About Carol Penn-Romine

Carol Penn-Romine is a food writer whose work has appeared in Best Food Writing 2013, Gastronomica, Cornbread Nation IV: The Best of Southern Food Writing and several magazines within the Edible Communities family. When last you encountered her, she smelled of freshly-caught fish. You can see what else she’s up to at www.hungrypassport.com.

Comments
Comments
  1. Christine Venzon says:

    I’d never heard of that before. It sure tops my family’s donuts-after-Sunday-Mass routine. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You’re welcome, Christine!

    Of course, my mind always runs to the extremes–now I envision a bottle of Coke and peanuts with a doughnut slipped over the top, so I can give myself a sugary mustache and goatee while I’m noshing…

    Cheers!

    Carol

  3. Russell Moore says:

    I haven’t thought of that in years. In my case, it was a little country gas station with two pumps in East Texas that mainly served truck farmers like my granddad. The coke machine was the chest type that actually held the bottles in a slurry of ice water. There was nothing better, or colder, on a hot June day. The saltiness of the peanuts made it that much better. Thanks for the memory.

    • You’re welcome, Russell. Just mentioning the little country gas station takes me back, too. An oasis in the midst of all those fields and crops and dusty country roads….Thanks! Carol

  4. Lauralee Hensley says:

    I like Coke (as we call it here), but I just don’t think I’d like it with the peanuts in it. I like peanuts, salty ones are great, but think I’ll just eat them from my hand. Bet my brother does this though, since he’s been living in the south a mighty long time now. I mean, he even picked up a bit of their southern drawl.
    Great article though, reminds me of always going along with my Dad on the weekends when he picked up extra work doing tree and shrub trimming for people. I especially liked it when we went to one really old lady’s home, she always had red hot candies and she always gave me a handful. Then she’d show me her collection of beautiful dolls, baby dolls, and even her Barbie dolls. I think she must have had over 300 dolls total. They were so pretty to look at. My Dad told me to never play with any of them, just to look.

    • Ooooh! You got red hots?! That’s great–and like Pavlov’s dog, I’m probably going to have to go out & get myself some today. Thanks for sharing your tooling-around-with-Dad memory. Special times, they were. Cheers! Carol

  5. Wayne Whitworth says:

    Yea Carol, I can still see Alfred Whitworth at Cut Rate Gas Station in Rutherford, TN, doing the same thing. And it had to be the smaller bottle of coke! The larger one just wouldn’t do, the whole ratio of peanuts to coke would be off. By the way, I don’t know if you remember, but I helped your Dad farm the summer that I was 16 years old. He taught me how to drive that John Deere and disc a field. I will never forget it. As a matter of fact, David Clay, Glyn, and I drove by one of the fields this past Saturday and Glyn and I both commented on it.

    • Hey, Cousin Wayne! Yep, those were some special times, weren’t they? I could drive that John Deer tractor before I could drive a car. Impressed a lot of boys that way….Thanks for mentioning the peanuts-to-Coke ratio. You just have to get that right! Carol

  6. I grew up in rural south Georgia so of course I grew up putting peanuts in my Coke. It was always the little 8-ounce bottles and always a pack of Lance roasted and salted peanuts. Coke and peanuts was one of our favorite after-school treats and one that I still enjoy on occasion. I wrote a little about it, too, in a post I did earlier this summer.

    • Oh yeah, Lana, love those Coke Floats! My bid for gastronomic superstardom came in college when I’d go to the local Sonic Drive-In and order a float made with Sprite and chocolate ice cream. Made me feel like such a culinary pioneer…

      Thanks! Carol

  7. Teresa Wise says:

    Being a Tennessee girl myself, it brings back a lot of great memories!

  8. Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

    What memories! I can picture the farmers at the local feed and seed store in Marietta, Georgia, wearing their tractor caps. To this day, I still covet a Massey Ferguson hat–something about wearing a hat emblazoned with a big “MF,” a double entendre, I suppose. I recently indoctrinated my Coke-swilling teen into the joys of adding a bag of peanuts, he will never be the same…in a good way.

  9. Sue Epstein says:

    Carol, thanks for the memory. I had forgotten about drinking Coke with Lance’s peanuts. Although I lived in the big city of Atlanta, I well remember the process of taking a few sips of the Coke, tearing off the corner of the peanut bag, and adding them. Hmm, I’m going to have to see if I can find some small bottles of Coke!

    • My pleasure, Sue!

      It’s easier to find single serving-sized Coke in glass bottles now than it has been in the past couple of decades. Thanks to the increasing popularity of cane sugar Coke produced in Mexico, we’re not stuck with the high fructose corn syrup-laden stuff. The cane sugar variety is what we grew up with, and I like it so much better.

      Cheers!

      Carol

  10. Vino says:

    My sister forwarded this article to me with the comment, “I didn’t know you were Southern.” I’ve had this combination for years and don’t know who introduced me to it. It’s interesting to read the origin (my mother is from Texas…maybe that’s where I got it AND my preference for sweet tea). I’ve had many friends think it’s weird/gross/disgusting when I open and bottle of Coke and they see me start to pour the peanuts. (I usually get asked, “Are you going to drink that?”) Thanks for sharing!

    • You’re welcome, Vino! I think your friends are just jealous that they didn’t do it first. ;)

      I’ve heard of some people who like to sprinkle a little cayenne pepper over the peanuts before pouring them in. I haven’t tried it yet, but I mean to. Sounds like a great idea to me, especially for beating the heat.

      Cheers!

      Carol

  11. Magnificent work, Carol. You are a very talented writer. You brought the scene to life so that we readers could live it too.

  12. Thanks, Barbara! We must get together soon for Coke & peanuts, and I’ll coach you in some Suhthun expressions. :-)

  13. kristen says:

    I’m CT born and raised and I’ve put peanuts in my Coke as far back as I can think. Maybe this isn’t a strictly Southern practice. I love it and will continue to indulge! Thanks :-)

    • Hmmm, is it a case of culinary or cultural osmosis? Or that you just have good taste in taste? I don’t know, but it looks like you intuited a great combination long ago!

      Cheers!

      Carol

  14. D R M says:

    Ah, my Texas roots are screaming for a bottled coke & peanuts!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      And my Iowa roots are discombobulated, thinking they’re South Carolina roots, I swear, ever since I first read this piece…

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