Country crossroads: Boiling down the essence of humanity
Heading west out of Bryson City, just before the highway narrows into a twisting two-lane road, a small, ramshackle hut watches over the crossroads of Southern Appalachia — a last stop before descending into the remote Nantahala Gorge ahead, or the desolate beauty of Fontana Lake to the right.
The shack, wedged between junk cars and a rundown trailer, has seen better days, on a property that has seen better years. But, upon closer inspection, a friendly face sits behind a counter filled with knickknacks and the wafting smell of boiled peanuts.
“Well, I just love boiled peanuts,” 71-year-old Tommy Yon smiled. “I had to make a living somehow.”
For the last 30 years, Yon has been throwing nuts into hot water at “Tommy’s Peanut Palace.” He’s become a fixture of sorts, a welcoming Appalachian icon for travelers venturing into the Gorge or meandering around Fontana.
“I think it’s fascinating that folks are fascinated by this place,” he said. “It makes me proud that I’m doing something that makes people happy, and I’m here for them all.”
Patience is the key
Tommy’s Peanut Palace sells two types of boiled peanuts — regular and Cajun.
“We do a Cajun style peanut with my own recipe, which I don’t give out,” Yon chuckled.
Starting with boiling hot water, the peanuts are dropped in, the salt added, then stirred around until they’re ready, with one batch taking four hours.
“Patience is the key,” Yon said. “Watching them is just like you’re in the kitchen cooking a meal. You can’t cook a good meal without patience and paying attention to what you’re doing.”
And though it seems anyone can make their own boiled peanuts, only Yon is the keeper of the secret ingredients — storytelling, with two tablespoons of compassion.
“It’s about interacting with all kinds of people, understanding their problems, being there for them, listening to their stories, and telling some tall tales of my own to make it interesting for them,” he said. “I meet so many different kinds of people, even folks from the where I grew up in Florida — it’s such a small world.”
Of all the customers he’s had over the years, Yon remembers fondly when the late legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt would stop by occasionally with champion driver Bill Elliot, who lived nearby.
“They’d stop by, and it was pretty cool, but I don’t make a big deal out of it like other people who make a fuss about famous people,” Yon said. “If the president stopped by, I wouldn’t make a big deal about it either — they’re regular people just like anybody else.”
In a good week, before the economic downturn, he’d go through a 50-pound bag of peanuts a day. But penny-pinching in the recession even took its toll on boiled peanuts. These days, he only goes through two bags a week, with a quart pouch selling for $5.
“I depend on the local business in the winter when there’s no tourists, but if the locals don’t have any jobs they don’t have any money for peanuts,” he said.
So, folks can get peanuts year-round, even in the depths of winter?
“I try to stay open as long as the weather is permissible,” Yon said. “If you can safely get off the highway in the winter, there’s always somebody here and always peanuts available.”
No country (peanuts) for old men
In recent years, Yon has handed over the business to his son, Tommy Jr., an acclaimed kayaker in the Gorge. He makes the third generation of Yons to sell boiled peanuts. Though he doesn’t own the palace anymore, Tommy Sr. still mans the stand and refuses to leave his post. If familiar faces to stop by for some peanuts, he wants to be there to greet them.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen when I’m gone. I have a feeling I’ll be missed because there are people that have been coming here every year, for years, and they tell me when they leave for home, this is their stop out of the area,” Tommy Sr. said. “A lot of them lost me when I moved to here, and they finally found me and said, ‘We thought you died out or left.’”
Sitting on a tailgate of an old truck, Tommy Sr. watches as two cars pull up from different directions. One license plate says “Florida,” the other “Illinois.” Both are in search of boiled peanuts, both in search of Tommy Sr.
“This spot means to me what it means to those folks who stop by,” he quietly said, wiping away a few hard-earned tears. “I’m a dying breed. People come to this part of the country to see things like this shack and there’s nothing here anymore like that — nothing’s original anymore.”
Tommy Sr. then mentioned the serious health issues currently facing his wife. He’s worried about the financial strain of her condition, but “God-willin’, we’ll make it through,” he said. Taking a deep breath and relaxing on the edge of a truck tailgate, Tommy Sr. glances up at the fast-moving summer highway traffic, his gaze slowly shifting over to the peanut shack.
“You know, a lot of people don’t want to stop by here because they think it’s a junky place,” he said. “But, I’ve had some of the most expensive-looking people stop by, who love these boiled peanuts. They say to me, ‘Do you really live here? Because this one of the coolest places in the world.’”