The Comfort of Boiled Peanuts

"I just wanted to sit under those cheap, low-hanging pendant lights, eating my bowl of peanuts with a friend who knew exactly how to feed me."

Bowl of Boiled Peanuts

Simply Recipes / Eva Feuchter

I wish I could say I left him in the night, but it was a glaring afternoon when my Saturn zoomed under the bowing live oaks and onto the flattened highway. I felt blinded by all the directions I could go, but got lost somewhere in the panhandle—this was in the days of printed directions—and stopped in a little town for help. 

The man at the gas station whistled, “You got far off track,” and used a nubby finger to point me to the right exit. In the car, I turned up Alison Krauss and wailed deeply, dramatically. I’d had breakups before, but this was no breakup. It was a fissure I’d seen coming that felt nonetheless like a great and endless fall. I was convinced that we would not break up, and that was the real tragedy. My utter helplessness in the face of what I knew I should not continue to endure.

When I pulled into my friend’s apartment, a three-hour journey turned into five, the day had already uncurled into an unexpectedly cool summer evening. We sat on her balcony, waving to the frat boys happily and drunkenly line dancing below us, and I told it all. How I stormed off one night on foot from a bar, expecting him to come after me, but instead arrived back at our duplex with only the light-rapacious moths for company. How he pushed me into a doorframe, and then I pushed him into the wooden drawers. Again and again, we fought and made up, slamming doors and throwing DVDs across the room like silver frisbees. Acquaintances I hardly knew begged me to end it already. 

My friend, who’d heard all this before, announced that we needed to go out. My stomach growled against itself, a waking bear, but I followed her on the promise of sushi and lychee cocktails and mad, sweaty dancing. Before the bars, we stopped at her boyfriend’s apartment, nicer than hers with an eat-in kitchen and real curtains on the windows. His roommate, a Vietnamese boy named Hao, was boiling something on the stove. I floated to him, my senses stirred by a familiar smell, hunger grumbling from deep within. I had only eaten an apple that day. 

“Peanuts,” he said. He lifted a spoonful of murky brown liquid, the exact color of a shaded creek, and fished out a peanut for me. 

I hot-potatoed it in my hand while he looked on, bemused. Then I popped the shell open with my teeth and squeezed the soft peanut in my mouth, and the soup-water along with it. It was creamy and salty, nourishing and simple. I stood uselessly with the shell until he stretched out his hand and I dropped it into his palm. I had another.

“That’s just what I needed,” I said. I could tell by the way he looked at me that he knew the conditions of my surprise visit. 

“There’s a whole pot,” he said. “Help me out: I can’t eat it all.” 

He spooned a heap of peanuts into a wooden bowl, draining the juices through a sieve. On top of the bowl he placed a smaller one for the shells and handed it all to me. I sat at the counter and watched him turn off the stove, drain the rest of the peanuts. Must have been two pounds, probably more. He put the leftovers in the fridge without taking any for himself.

“How long have you been boiling these?” I asked. 

He said, almost indignantly, “Three hours at least. No less. My mom taught me.” 

Hao was a guy’s guy; the center of every group of friends. The gluten keeping them all together with his good humor and ease. He was the first to spring for bottle service, even if it ate into his rent, and the last to trail out of a party, hoping until the last moment to catch a glimpse of some fun no one else had yet found. He had broad shoulders and round cheeks, lightly pockmarked and dusky pink when he drank. His bottom lip was fuller than his top, and behind them, he had perfect teeth. 

I told him about my grandmother, how she used to boil peanuts every few weeks, until the doctor got on her case about sodium. She’d scrub and soak them overnight, then cover the raw nuts with tons of water in a huge stainless steel pot, heaping palmfuls of salt down into the mixture. Then the heat, the boiling. That deep starch smell, mingling with whatever else she was cooking in the kitchen. My job was to taste the peanuts every half hour, to make sure they got that perfect mushy texture. We don’t like a peanut with tension. The flesh has to sink under your teeth like silt.

Afternoons, I sat outside on the swinging bench with a book, a bowl of boiled peanuts on my lap. I threw the shells on the ground, where the crows picked over them. Once, I saw a rowdy group of ants turn over one of the shells like a hatchback, heaving it across the overgrown yard until I couldn’t see it anymore. Brown on brown. We were lucky to have immigrated to the south, where boiled peanuts were as common as in Vietnam. 

“So boiled peanuts are home for you,” he said. I wanted to cry with the relief of not having to explain myself to a man.

Hao told me his mom made sure he could cook, so he’d never have to marry unless he wanted to. He could make decent phở, he said. I told him he would make an excellent husband someday. 

From the couch where she huddled with her boyfriend, my friend called, “Well, you should marry him, obviously.” 

“Will you keep me fed in boiled peanuts?” I asked. 

His smile was broad, magnanimous. “As much as you can eat.” 

Later, we did go to the fancy restaurant and the bar with the unthinkable cover charge, but I didn’t really want to leave Hao’s kitchen. I just wanted to sit under those cheap, low-hanging pendant lights, eating my bowl of peanuts with a friend who knew exactly how to feed me.

Even in the backseat of his pristine car—leather-upholstered, with a dangling cardboard pine tree in the rearview—I did not allow myself to be separated from my bowl of peanuts. Hao laughed from the front seat. 

“That’s a Vietnamese girl right there.” 

My friend shot me an annoyed look. “Are you taking that into the sushi restaurant?”

“BYOP,” I winked. 

Then she laughed and said, “You are too good for him.” I knew who she meant.

Later that night, I finished the bowl of peanuts between the second and third bars. My friend and I crashed in her boyfriend’s apartment, but I woke up early the next morning. I had to get back for my shift at work, my classes, my boyfriend. Before I left, Hao slung a gallon-sized Ziplock bag through my open window. Inside, boiled peanuts. 

“My good husband,” I said, blowing a kiss. Driving home, I didn’t stray from my path this time.

When I got back into town, I made up with my boyfriend. In a few months, I’d move across the country with him, much to my friends’ despair. I continued to bear witness to two more years of mutual suffocation—I gave as good as I got, I think—before ending it quietly, anticlimactically, on another early summer evening, hundreds of miles from when we started. 

Hao and I stayed friends and sometimes met in our respective cities, taking turns treating one another to dinner. I still called him my Vietnamese Husband, up until I actually did get married. He’s married now too, and in his pictures on social media, he gazes so lovingly at his wife that I think it was all true after all. He was a good friend who became a very good husband.