By Jefferson Weaver
It was an impulse, but a serendipitous one.
I had missed lunch and was hungry (a common occurrence nowadays). I was becoming grumpier by the minute, and minutes were by that point a choice commodity. With sad resignation, I trudged my way to the vending machines.
I planned just to get a soft drink, but then I spotted a simple, unpretentious package amidst all the genetically-modified sugar coated concoctions designed to fool one into a plastic imitation of satisfaction.
Standing tall but quiet among the only other worthies of the vending machine (an assortment of square and round Nabs) was a package of peanuts. Plain, salted peanuts. No chipotle flavor. No honey roast. No jalapeno or chocolate or candy covering. Plain, salted peanuts.
A few coins later, and said package was mine. I cannot say it assuaged every hunger pang, but I did become markedly less likely to intentionally frighten small children for the rest of the day.
In a fit of whimsy, I carefully poured the package of peanuts into the bottle, noting how these modern bottles are uncivilized, and obviously not designed for the finer things in life.
I have always been hesitant to write about pouring peanuts into a Coke, Pepsi, or RC, simply because it’s almost cliche for a Southern writer, especially a Southern writer from North Carolina, to expound on peanuts in a drink.
But the tiny bubbles painted a classic picture, fighting upward through jampacked goobers may have been in a modern bottle, especially on a miserably hot summer’s day.
There was a time when a longnecked bottle and peanuts were considered de riegueur; some folks still do add nuts to their cola as a standard practice, but it’s rapidly going the way of the payphone.
I tried recalling the first time I ever saw someone rip open a pack of peanuts and pour them into a Coke expertly freed by an opener screwed to the side of a sweating ice box, or against a wall over a trash can. The memory of the first one failed to surface, but there were many others.
When I was a kid, a group of local men formed a group to give kids something to do in the summer other than get into mischief. We piled into pickup trucks and stationwagons and visited the state zoo, museums, state parks, and local historic sites. One summer they took us to White Lake.
We ate hot dogs and hamburgers, swam until a roaring thunderstorm came up, went to the arcade, and came back to eat some more. Our drinks were about evenly split between the Big Two colas – and on the picnic table was a large can of peanuts, ready to be applied to the mouths of our achingly cold drinks. The ride home was a bit challenging for some whose constitutions were not as strong as others.
The somewhat intimidating owner of what became my favorite bait shop also loved peanuts in his drink (in his case, it was Pepsi, unless the clock indicated adult beverages were in order.) Some of my friends were hesitant to shop there, due to whispers of a violent past and a sharp, thick “gouger” nail on one finger, but I liked the place. After wearing him down with a dollar’s worth of minnows or crickets every few days, he became friendlier, and even helped me learn how to tie a barrel knot, among other fishing skills of note.
One of the lawnmowing clients who financed those bait shop trips always offered me a cold Coke when the job was completed, and often had a package of peanuts to go with it. She was one of those neighborhood grandmas who tolerated no foolishness but spoiled kids rotten, and smelled sweetly of gardenias; she even sent me a note when I left home for college, although it had been years since I had mowed her lot shaded with missile-producing pecans and acorns fired by a 3.5 horse Briggs and Stratton launcher.
Another place where peanuts and Cokes were standard fare is no longer in existence, or so I am told. It was a country store of the most classic kind, an oasis miles from the nearest home and a two-hour layover in Atlanta from the nearest town. I heard tell it burned years ago.
I am reluctant to add that I could understand why the store was so lonely; the widowed owner and operator was less than friendly. One might even consider her anti-social, if not downright hateful. It was the first year in decades that the area had been opened for deer hunting, and we boys were ecstatic. That area is now spotted with Yankees, minifarms and swimming pools, but back then the roads were dirt, the trees tall, and the deer were like elk.
When a bitterly cold rain moved in late one morning, I trudged back to the camp, and went to the plain white store for coffee.
The lady behind the counter was surly as usual, and the coffee was rank. Still, I took a place on a pathetic memory of a wooden chair near a gas heater. The only other patron was a fellow who looked the part of a backwoods patriarch; his eyes were deep in wrinkled leather, his overalls exhausted with age, and his boots worthy of a museum. He bickered with the lady behind the counter over the volume on the white plastic radio that played old-time Southern gospel music through a tinny speaker.
The vent for the heater was flanked by two deer mounts, just the skullcaps and antlers. The oldest was a mighty rack worthy of a full body mount, rather than just a dry scalp and antlers on a piece of walnut. Hanging beside it was a slab of pine with a cap smaller than the palm of a hand, with two-inch spikes.
My companion, without being asked, explained that the big deer was killed around the end of World War I, while the spike was the last deer harvested before the area was basically closed to hunting in the 40s. No one ever expected deer to return, he said. Pouring peanuts into his Coke, happy for a non-combative conversation, he made the rain go away with stories of deer and dogs, bears and liquor stills, and Depression-era hunts when an empty bag meant hungry children.
All those memories, and more, were awakened with a few ounces of peanuts in a soft drink. I realized, for all the frustrations of the day, that I was really a wealthy man, even if I had just spent $2.
For centuries, alchemists tried to manufacture gold by mixing chemicals and compounds.
It’s too bad they didn’t have salted peanuts and a longneck bottle – they would have realized that some of the greatest treasures can be found in country stores, on back porches, or even vending machines.