Pickles in Dr. Pepper? Nah. Try Peanuts in Your Coke

peanuts with coke bottle

The tradition of adding peanuts to your Coke began in the South (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

Why putting peanuts in an ice-cold Coke is more Southern than you think

Every once in a while, something happens that reminds me that my upbringing wasn’t ubiquitous. Not everyone was exposed to the same traditions and culture as I was. It happened again recently as the internet rediscovered the Southern tradition of putting salted peanuts in a fresh, cold Coke. The commentariat was aflutter. Meanwhile, I was left to wonder where y’all had been. 

With the overall popularity of Appalachian culture nowadays, it’s easy to forget that we began garnering national attention as something of a curiosity. The wider world was entertained by our strange and mysterious ways. And while I tend to think that most of the world has caught up with our idiosyncrasies, there remain times we can still shock the world. One of those ways is by putting salted peanuts in a bottle of Coca-Cola. 

Some believe that the tradition of putting peanuts in your Coca-Cola began in the 1920s to maximize efficiency. Workers could enjoy a snack without having to wash up first. To try it, get a Coke in a glass bottle with salty peanuts. Drink a little of the soda first before adding the peanuts to make room. For less than $3, you have a salty and sweet snack.

coke bottles with peanuts inside
The saltier the peanuts, the better the snack (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

When did the Coke and peanuts tradition begin?

In general terms, the consensus is that it began in the South in the ’20s when workers began getting access to ice-cold bottles of Coke through refrigerated vending machines. The idea was a worker – as part of lunch or a snack – could buy a Coke (more on this later) and a small bag of salted peanuts. By putting the peanuts into the drink, they could consume both without having to wash up first. It seems as good an explanation as any, I suppose. However, in my youth, I was told it made it easier for workers to eat the sandwich they’d brought from home and hold their drink without having to juggle a third item.

Efficiency is the mother of invention

I was vaguely aware of the tradition before I got my first job bagging groceries at the Red Food in Maryville, but it was there I got my first full education into the traditions of East Tennessee. Back then, bag boys were of two kinds – baggers like me beginning their work life and retirees approaching the end of it.

There was an older gentleman on the team – Butler, I think his name was – who worked the day shift. He proved to be very useful in my instruction on the ways of East Tennessee. You wouldn’t have called him a mountain man. He was a slicker, from inside the Maryville city limits. Freshly pressed and coiffed, he moved and walked with a crispness. When he was a young man, he’d have been called dapper, I think. He was purposeful and had a pride that almost felt out of place working at the grocery store as a 70-something-year-old retiree with a bunch of slacker kids.

And he spoke the old language. He never asked customers if they wanted a bag or a sack. It was always a poke. And at break time? His go-to snack was always the same, a bag of salted peanuts and an ice-cold Co-Cola. I want to be clear here. It wasn’t a Coca-Cola or a Coke. Or even pop or soda. It was peanuts and a Co-Cola and he was the acolyte, carrying the gospel of the sweet, salty beverage/snack to the uneducated masses. Under his influence, it went from being something I’d had a couple of times to a go-to snack.

peanuts and coke bottles
Be sure to select glass bottle colas and plain salted nuts for this recipe (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

How do you make it?

So, this ain’t exactly gonna be Anthony Bourdain-level culinary action. Get yourself a nice, cold Co-Cola – preferably in a glass bottle. I recommend the Cokes they sell in the Mexican food aisle that has the real sugar like the old days for maximum effect. Can you do it with a plastic bottle of new Coke? You can. But in all honesty, it lessens the experience. Next, get a bag of salted peanuts. Don’t get honey roasted or anything crazy like that. The saltier the better. You know the kind they sell at gas station checkouts with a couple of handfuls of nuts. That’s all you need. Now, you gotta drink a little of the Co-Cola to make room for the peanuts, but don’t overdo it.

You can drink enough to put the whole bag in at once, but I’m a dab-and-drink guy. I think it’s best when the peanuts are just freshly put into the Coke, not left to float around too long. I’ll put in enough for a good drink, then refill as necessary. Styles and tastes vary. You do you on this thing.

Does it taste good?

I like it. I’ve liked it for more than 30 years now. The blend of the super sweet Coke and the super salty nuts is the kind of thing that a culinary scientist dreams of. You’d pay big money in a fancy New York restaurant for foam with that flavor profile. You’d win all the top chef competitions.

But how would I describe it beyond liking it? Beyond the combination of salty and sweet? I’m not 100 percent sure. It’s a little like those cluster candies you can get without the chocolate but not exactly. The good news is it’s not expensive. For less than $3, I feel confident you can try it yourself. Think of it this way: How many times do you get to participate in internet meme culture and honor the old ways of the Appalachian workers at the same time? Them Venn diagrams don’t overlap too much, if you know what I’m saying.

In today’s interconnected world, where we are frequently brought into homes and cultures half a world away, it’s easy to forget that we have our traditions that might seem out of place to some. And then one day, you turn on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook and find out you’ve been on the vanguard of the latest new thing for more than 35 years. Peanuts and Coca-Cola? Who knew? I did. And so did Butler.

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