Southerners in the United States are a unique and eccentric group, as evidenced by the fact that we will fry anything that will hold still long enough and our favorite sport is watching a bunch of guys and a girl drive 200 miles an hour while making a continuous left turn.
When snack time rolls around, you might see your Southern friends do something else a little unusual.
A Common Sight
“I remember Granddaddy sitting around the old country store down the road from the house,” says John Masters of Tampa, Florida. “Granddaddy would take a few good swallows of Coke, then tear off a corner of one of the little single serving bags of Tom’s peanuts, make his hand into a funnel and pour the peanuts into the Coke. It would fizz up for a few seconds, then he’d start drinking them down.”
Combining the sweet, ice-cold goodness of Coca-Cola with the salty crunch of peanuts is a practice that goes back for generations and brings back fond memories for Southerners of all ages.
For James Brown, who grew up in the small mill village of Enka, N.C., just the mention of peanuts and Coke makes him break into a wide grin as he revs up the way-back machine.
“I was 5 years old when my daddy showed me how to put peanuts in Coke,” he explains. “It was a whole different world back then. We would walk a few blocks down to the filling station on the main road, and get a cold bottle of Coke out of the big red drink box in the back of the station. They had Lance peanuts back then, on a rack on the counter with a little white box attached to the rack. It was on the honor system — you dropped your dime into the box and got your peanuts to put in the Coke.”
But how did this combination get started, and are Southerners the only ones who do it? As a food historian, my curiosity was aroused.
Where Did It All Begin?
I started my research with a somewhat scientific poll. I asked every non-Southerner I could find about putting peanuts in a bottle of Coca-Cola, and was universally met with a head-cocked, bewildered look.
Folks from Texas to the Carolinas partake in the sweet, salty goodness, while the custom seems to peter out in Virginia and disappears entirely by Maryland.
As for when and where Coke and peanuts first got together, there were several possibilities.
John T. Edge, Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, grew up in Jones County, Georgia, where “any road trip was fueled by a sleeve of roasted and salted peanuts and a glass bottle of Coke.”
Edge believes the combo “was likely born of country store commerce. Think of Coke and peanuts as a prototype fast-food for the 20th century South.”
Although there’s no written record, the first package of peanuts may have been poured into a glass bottle of Coke as early as the 1920s. Packaged, already shelled peanuts from Planters, Lance and Tom’s began showing up at country stores and filling stations where the familiar contour bottle of Coke was already being sold.
As any fan of crime shows knows, we have established the opportunity, now we have to establish the motive: Why put the peanuts in the bottle?
“I think putting peanuts in Coke may go back to working people who may not have had a place to wash up,” Masters says. “If you’ve been working on a car and have grease all over your hands, you pour the peanuts directly in the bottle and they stay clean.”
Edge says that combining the two made it easier to drive a stick shift on the back roads of Central Georgia, while James Brown thinks that the tradition may have begun in order to leave one hand free to smoke or to keep working.
“I don’t know how it got started,” Brown says. “But you sure can’t beat a cold Coke filled with a sleeve of peanuts when you want something to hold you over till suppertime.”
Rick McDaniel is a food historian and author of An Irresistible History of Southern Food: Four Centuries of Black-Eyed Peas, Collard Greens and Whole Hog Barbecue (History Press, 2011).