Thinking Outside The Shell
Jimmie Fidler of Baldwin County is accustomed to being praised for his super jumbo peanuts, but a chef making a soup with them was a first.
“Down here, there are peanuts growing everywhere,” said Chef Randall Baldwin of Lucy B Goode, a Gulf Shores restaurant committed to using only locally grown fruits and vegetables on its menu. “I’m a huge fan of boiled peanuts, but you can’t serve boiled peanuts in a restaurant. So I thought, ‘How do I take this and put it somewhere else on the menu?’”
And so the peanut soup was born. Baldwin boils Fidler’s peanuts and purees them with caramelized Vidalia onions and bacon. The warm soup is topped with a single boiled peanut and a dollop of crème fraîche.
“A lot of people would never think of peanut soup, but I think it’s really cool,” Baldwin says. “It’s one of those things you won’t see in many places.”
Fidler had never heard of peanut soup, but said he was honored a chef would make something so creative with his product. When Baldwin wanted to take a tour of the farm where the peanuts were grown, Fidler happily obliged.
Fidler, 72, has been farming in Silverhill since 1963. He began growing his famous peanuts in 1997 after receiving 300 seeds for what are known as his signature Fidler Golden Delicious jumbo green peanuts from a friend in North Carolina. He also grows the smaller Virginia variety of peanuts, which are great for roasting.
In Baldwin County, there are more than 20,000 acres of runner peanuts, which are used to make peanut butter and oil, however, Fidler’s 110 acres of peanuts are all grown to be enjoyed whole, either roasted or boiled. He markets them directly to customers who visit his farm. They are also sold at grocery stores, farmers markets and even large chains like Wal-Mart.
Fidler says his marketing success is all about sales techniques — being available and keeping customers happy.
“I quit school before I finished the 10th grade, but I learned how to sell to people,” Fidler says. “And we make them happy, no matter what it takes.”
Fidler and his son, Jamie, handle the staggered planting and harvesting that allows them to have fresh peanuts from August to October, but Fidler is the marketing and customer service master. His cellphone is the business phone, and he answers hundreds of calls daily during peanut season.
“If I don’t answer one of them, they might not come by and get peanuts,” he said.
Baldwin said visiting farmers gives him a greater respect for what they grow.
“It’s not just going and picking it up from the farmers market, it’s going to meet the farmer and building that relationship,” Baldwin says. “Mr. Fidler has spent so much time and effort producing these peanuts, we want to have as much care and respect for our food as he has for his product.
“You can tell the cooks in the kitchen about him and how passionate he is, and they will have more respect for it. Then the servers can pass that passion along to the customers. Meeting the farmer face-to-face really builds that trust from farm-to-table, which is what we’re all about.”
Lucy B Goode opened in August 2013. It is owned by Lucy Buffett, who is famous for her high-volume restaurant LuLu’s at Homeport Marina in Gulf Shores.
Buffett said she always wanted to create a smaller, more upscale restaurant, and after the 2010 oil spill, she wanted to support the local economy by focusing on Gulf seafood and locally grown produce. She began buying from local suppliers for LuLu’s years ago, but farmers are front and center at her new restaurant. A large chalkboard on the restaurant’s wooden walls lists the names of farmers whose products are being served that day. The menu changes based on seasonal availability.
“I think it’s really important for us to help farmers,” Buffet said. “I’m always trying to get the best ingredients. Having the freshest ingredients is going to make every dish better, and I’m all about taste.”