Revered, reviled: Experts say peanuts originated in west-central South America – and were so highly regarded that the ancient Incas of Peru buried jars of them with their dead. Eventually, large and luscious Virginia peanuts became famous worldwide ... but in the Colonies and early America, peanuts were considered fit only for slaves, poor people and pigs.
African ties: The easily stored nuts made ideal food for mariners, who spread them across the globe. In the 1500s, Portuguese explorers took peanuts from Brazil to their coastal African settlements, according to the book "Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea" by Andrew F. Smith. Africans – some of whom thought the food had mystical power – adopted the oil-rich nuts and took them across much of the continent.
Food of slavery: From Africa, slave ships brought peanuts to North America – and indeed, the nuts fed captives onboard. On this continent, enslaved people raised peanuts in their small gardens, often working by moonlight.
By many names: Its wide-ranging journeys brought the peanut many names. The synonym "goober" is said to be derived from the word nguba from Congo. Similarly, Guinea natives called nuts gubagubs. Explorers in the Caribbean heard it called maní (a Spanish word for "peanut" today). Scientifically, the peanut is the less mellifluous Arachis hypogaea.
In Virginia: Peanuts in Virginia were probably first grown in Surry County, according to Suffolk historian Sue Woodward. There, the sandy soil is more suitable than across the James River, where English settlers first established themselves.