Long before affordable sparkling wines became widely available in the American South, and certainly long before ruby red strawberries were casually paired with the bubbly brew, an entirely different effervescent beverage was paired with a totally separate food to create a craze that lasted for some 50 years. Decades before strawberries and champagne were ever a thing, the hottest food and drink combo to sweep the nation was a Coca-Cola bottle filled with a handful of peanuts. Here’s how the strange-sounding duo became one of the country’s first foodie trends.
In 1886, Atlanta pharmacist John S. Pemberton debuted Coca-Cola to the masses. The drink was almost an instant sensation, immediately spreading across the nation’s pharmacies and department stores. Only a decade later, Coke had become so ingrained in day-to-day American life that U.S. soldiers brought an almost laughable amount of the soft drink with them to Cuba during the island’s war for independence against Spain. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt famously packed cases of the cola for his men, citing the drink’s health and energy-boosting benefits. For many men, military enlistment led to their very first encounter with the drink. When American soldiers finally returned stateside to their hometowns, they brought a consistent appetite for the drink with them. Remember after all that up until 1903, the coca leaf – from which cocaine is derived – was the key ingredient in Coke’s recipe.
Doing away with with the coca leaf hardly took the edge off of Coke’s cultural saturation. For many Americans, a bottle or two of Coke had become a daily staple. We aren’t certain who the first person to ever fill their bottle with peanuts was, but by the 1920s, the trend was officially a regional sensation from Georgia to southern Virginia.
Some historians believe agricultural workers and farmhands started the trend, pouring bags of peanuts directly into their iconic bottles to avoid touching their food with their dirty hands. Others believe it was mothers who urged their children to pour peanuts into their sodas for similar hygienic purposes. John T. Lewis – director of Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi – believes the combination was actually more akin to the prototypical fast food. In other words, it was the original happy meal, to borrow a phrase from another iconic U.S. business.
Peanuts were sold at the time in barrels and sacks at general stores. They were an inexpensive, protein-rich food for farm workers who didn’t necessarily get an hour-long lunch break in the middle of their work day. General store patrons, especially young people and farm workers about to embark on their long commute home, likely didn’t have bags or containers to carry their peanuts home with. So after taking a generous initial swig to make some room, into the bottle went the nuts.
“I think putting peanuts in Coke may go back to working people who may not have had a place to wash up,” Masters reflects in one of the Coca-Cola company’s historical columns. “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.” Masters also suggests that exploitation, rather than cleanliness, may very well have been a primary driver of the trend. A bottle full of peanuts and Coke only took one hand to hold, freeing up the other to keep working.
So how did the trend taste? Peanuts, despite what you might imagine, are able to maintain their crunch and texture, even after being submerged in the soda. Sugary, fizzy Coke is elevated by the addition of salty, crunchy nuts – a flavor combination that essentially is found all over grocery stores today in the form of sweet and salty granola bars or salted caramel-almond pints of ice cream. And lucky for you, it will only set you back $3 to $4 at most to find out for yourself how peanuts and Coke taste. Just whatever you do, don’t try substituting Diet Coke, warns Esquire. Peanuts and Coca-Cola may be an OG food trend, but peanuts and Diet Coke are just a crime against nature.