Ark of Taste
Groundnut cakes were an iconic street candy from the 1830s to the 1930s in Charleston, South Carolina. In the Lowcountry of Charleston, the beginning of summer was symbolized by the appearance of “Groundnut Cake Ladies” spotting shady street corners. Groundnut Cakes were sold for one penny a piece and soon became a traditional part of life in the south. The traditional cakes were made with molasses, roasted peanuts, brown sugar, and butter. During this time period, the Groundnut Cake and the women who sold them were a quintessential part of Charleston life.
There are a variety of recipes in existence for this historic dessert. The most true to taste recipe was first printed in Miss Ellen Parker’s The Carolina Housewife and was subsequently published in the very popular Charleston Receipts. It includes molasses, roasted peanuts, brown sugar, and butter. A different recipe calls for; one pound of blanched peanuts, brandy, ten eggs, one pound of sugar, and one pound of butter. One story tells of a rumor that Groundnut Cake Ladies went down to the docks where boats of goods were being unloaded and they scraped up the molasses that had leaked or spilled over. With varying recipes and ingredients, Groundnut Cakes taste different with every batch, one account even saying that it tasted lemony.
Groundnut Cakes are exclusively made in small batches, with locally sourced and sustainable ingredients. The original peanut used in these iconic cakes, the Carolina African peanut, has been brought back into cultivation at the Clemson organic farming center in Charleston. The other ingredients in the cakes can be sourced through local producers. In a city with as much of a culinary presence as Charleston, historic foods such as Groundnut Cakes deserve a comeback.