To Sean Brock, These Centuries-Old Carolina Peanuts Are More Precious Than Truffles
"One falls on the floor, we don’t throw it away," says the Husk chef. "We go wash it and put it back in the pile."
Charleston chef Sean Brock, a pioneer of Lowcountry cooking, has gained national recognition for his commitment to centering long-forgotten products, heirloom crops, techniques and traditions. His restaurants McCrady's Tavern and Husk, of which there are now four locations, have a fanatical focus on place. Each bite, while delicious, interrogates what it means to eat in the South.
"What Sean Brock is doing, and has been doing, is really cutting-edge and a direction forward that I think a lot of people are following; he's rediscovering traditional ingredients, species, specific types of food—varieties of rice, for instance, that haven’t existed," Anthony Bourdain tells Food & Wine at the 10th Annual Cayman Cookout. "He’s a seed collector, a botonist. I think what Sean is doing is really interesting."
Brock's latest passion project? In addition to, of course, the recent opening of Husk Savannah, running his empire, cooking at festivals and doing mind-blowing things with grits? Celebrating the Carolina African Runner peanut, an heirloom crop that hadn't been grown in centuries and was, until a few years ago, believed to be extinct. (According to NPR, only 40 seeds survived the Great Depression. Slowly and carefully, the peanuts were cultivated again in 2013, thanks to the efforts of horticulturist Brian Ward of Clemson University's Coastal Research and Education Center.)
"I've been trying to get these peanuts on the plate for a decade," Brock tells Food & Wine of the nuts, which grew in the South in the 1600s upon the arrival of enslaved West Africans. "What happens when you don’t plant something for 100 years is its DNA is stuck in that time period, like a time warp, so when you plant it in the soil in today’s climate, its DNA needs to change each year to cope with the changed conditions." Brock and his team finally had a successful crop of them this year, and the years of work were well worth it.
The tiny peanuts, which are higher in sugar and fat than what you're likely to find at the supermarket, serve as "a reminder of a time when our food used to taste better and be better for us and more delicious, and why we should continue to be advocates of food preservation," Brock says. "Not only do people not think of the different varieties of peanuts, but they don’t think of where it came from, and the struggles that came along with the having the opportunity to enjoy that peanut."
Brock says he really began digging deeper into the Charleston pantry back in 2006. Over time, he formed a list of the forgotten crops he found in old agricultural journals and cookbooks and heard about through word-of-mouth. The Carolina Runner peanuts have been on that list for a very long time, hence his excitement to cross it off.
"You start thinking about value, and we oftentimes only value things by their price, but the value of these to me … these are black truffles to me," he says. "You have to peel the skin off of each one. One falls on the floor, we don’t throw it away. We go wash it and put it back in the pile. We are so thankful and grateful to be able to eat them and cook with them. I keep them in a bowl in my house and eat them all day."
At the 10th Annual Cayman Cookout on January 12, Brock served a lunch where the peanuts took the spotlight. He used them to prepare a tangy vinaigrette, made with the peanut oil, peanut purée and vinegar, which he served atop a fresh salad of local produce and smoked country ham from Tennessee.
When he's not tracking down peanuts, Brock is opening restaurants. His most recent opening is Husk Savannah, the fourth outpost of Husk, which opened in January.
"What I’ve enjoyed the most about opening in Savannah is the humbling that comes along with thinking you have an idea of what a cuisine is about – Lowcountry food – and then you go to a completely different place that seems very ver similar, and it is Lowcountry food, but it's totally different," he says. "That's what makes Husk so exciting – it’s constant exploration."