Saturday, September 30, 2006

Peanuts on my mind

September 23

On the 21st I landed in Atlanta and was picked up by people from the Peanut Advisory Board for a ride to South Georgia in probably the coolest bus I've ever been in. Refrigerator, microwave, sink, tables for eating, seats facing the front of the bus for anti-social time and long couches facing either side of the bus for socializing.
I caught up with former Boston Market chef Bob Karisny, who's now a consultant in Denver. Among other things he tests recipes for the Peanut people. I also caught up with Brent Frei, who used to work with the American Culinary Federation and now is a publicist based in Chicago. I see him a lot, though, most recently at the ACF conference in Philadelphia this summer, so we didn't need to catch up much. Mostly I gossiped instead.
Also on the trip were a couple of other American food writers, four Canadian journalists, including three French-speaking Quebecoises, some chefs, a food historian and a duckling salesman.
I don't remember why the duckling salesman was there, so don't ask. He was a nice guy, at any rate.
In theory we were in the Georgia for a peanut harvest tour, but drought had delayed the peanuts' growth and they weren't ready to be picked.
But we still started the tour with a visit to the farm of David Reed in Hawkinsville, who obligingly used his machinery to lift up, shake and flip a couple of rows of peanut plants so we could look at them. We also brushed some of them off and tasted them. They're good; quite like peas. I can imagine local chefs from the sandy coastal plains where peanuts grow — an area that stretches along the coast from Virginia down the Atlantic and over to the Gulf of Mexico to Mississippi — using them for seasonal specials. Steamed, maybe. I wonder if peanut farmers could market them that way and sell them for a premium. As it is, Mr. Reed said prices for peanuts were so low that it looked like they'd lose money on them this year.
While this discussion was going on, we were being swarmed with gnats, who seemed to be fascinated by our faces and ears.
I found Mr. Reed's son to be fascinating. A former banker, he had a bachelor's degree in finance and a master's in vocal music. He figured he was the only opera-singing farmer in his part of South Georgia. These days he sings at church mostly. The food historian suggested he learn some Jewish songs so he could be a wedding singer. I said I thought that the demand for performers at Jewish weddings in South Georgia was probably not very high, and the opera singer agreed.
Then we visited a peanut-butter factory, where I learned that spectrometers check the color of peanut pieces that go into chunky peanut butter so that their color matches the color of the peanut butter overall.
We checked into our hotel in Albany, Ga. (pronounced al-BIN-ny or all-BEE-nee, depending on who you talk to), and then went to the Peanut Institute — peanut producers' research arm and, after a brief DVD presentation on the health qualities of peanuts, we enjoyed light refreshments and toured the institute, where there was a wide variety of peanut memorabilia and pictures of Jimmy Carter.
But the highlights of that visit were the crab dip, with cream cheese and cocktail sauce, and the pickled okra wraps.
Imagine crunchy pickled okra wrapped in flour tortillas with mild cheese and other flavorings and then sliced thinly. The presentation, including cross-sections of okra, was great.
And I know the crab dip sounds mundane, but it was superb.
My favorite thing to witness was the way one of the Quebecoise journalists managed a food allergy. Looking at the crab dip, she said that, as a Canadian, she was unfamiliar with this food and was curious to know what was in it. I never would have known she was allergic to seafood if her companions hadn't ratted her out, showing they didn't understand the incredible dignity with which their compatriot was avoiding anaphylactic shock without drawing attention to herself or embarrassing her hosts.
It was a great moment in social etiquette ruined by clueless people.
I don't think she minded, but she still got her companions back by convincing them that they had been entered as contestants in a peanut princess beauty contest to be held on Sunday.
For dinner, at AJ's Seafood & Oyster Bar, I had delicious fried catfish and I finally came to understand the point of fried green tomatoes. At AJ's the cook them enough to release some of the sweetness in the tomatoes. Delicious!
The next day we went to Tifton to visit a buying point — where peanuts are bought, cleaned of much of their rocks and stems and suck, graded and sent to be shelled. And in the afternoon we went to a shelling plant in Smithville, where we saw the shelling and sorting machines. Basically, after peanuts are shelled they're shaken and shaken and shaken and shaken to be sorted by size as they drop through various gratings. It's loud, but easier than picking through them by hand.
Between those tours we went to the Coastal Plains Experiment Station in Tifton, where the best thing I learned is how to tell if a peanut is ripe: rub away some of the beige colored hull. It should be dark brown underneath.
But the highlight of the day was unbelievably good barbecue at the experiment station. Pulled pork and ribs and Brunswick stew and so on. Followed by pecan pie.
Okay, I guess the highlight of the day actually was meeting my favorite ex-president, Jimmy Carter, who greeted us at the community center in his hometown of Plains.
We waited outside with him, and were handed little hand fans to shoo away the gnats. I had always thought that when I had seen southerners slowly waving themselves with fans, they were cooling themselves off. A slow wave of the fan is not very effective at doing that, but it certainly keeps the gnats off of your face. The only drawback is that the fans don't actually kill the gnats, something I wanted to do desperately at that point.
President Carter arrived before too long. He posed for a picture with us and then we went inside for sweet tea, lemonade and various peanut products. Shrimp cocktail, too. I'm not sure why.
At the shelling plant they had given us peanut butter pie after our tour, yet we still managed to enjoy the snacks as well as dinner, which we ate at the haunted Windsor Hotel in Americus. Being in Georgia, I ordered the pecan crusted salmon with peach marmalade. It seemed like the thing to do.
The next day was the Plains Peanut Festival — the 10th annual, if I remember correctly. I had lost my fan, so I shooed gnats away with my hand while I sampled sandwiches of barbecued pulled pork. Some VIP bleachers had been set up along the parade route and we were instructed that those bleechers were, in fact, for us.
The parade was fascinating, and lasted for a relentless 35 minutes as car after car of beauty queens in three categories went by. There were a variety of Miss fillintheblanks, as well as junior misses and tiny misses. There were shriners, too, and people from retirement homes, and members of the local ROTC and urban league.
Chris Koetke, the dean of Kendall College in Chicago and one of my fellow peanut harvest tourists, observed that all of the members of the ROTC and urban league were black, and that all of the beauty queens were white.
None of the beauty queens, it turned out, were Quebecoise.

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