RALEIGH — Bill Hoover played with food.
For most of his 94 years, he lorded over bubbling beakers in his basement lab, dabbling in cocktail sauce, fiddling with cheese spread, burrowing to the essence of sweet potatoes. Over his long career, most of it at N.C. State University, you could taste Hoover's work in Carolina Treet barbecue sauce or any number of three-bean salads.
But Hoover, who died in Georgia this month, deserves a golden-brown monument on the National Mall for his greatest invention, a treat nibbled by many a coach-seated air traveler: the honey-roasted peanut.
"He was very good," said Jesse Brown, a colleague at NCSU who is now retired from food science. "He would lay awake at night, from 4 a.m. till daybreak, coming up with ideas until dawn."
Hoover's patent for honey-roasted nuts, granted in 1987, describes a messy, old-style method of glazing legumes.
Pre-Hoover the nuts were coated before roasting, losing both color and flavor.
Hoover-style nuts get roasted first, then coated with hot emulsified liquid when their temperature measures at least 160 but no more than 350 degrees. That way, they're not as sticky, and they stay fresher longer.
"Every mother crow thinks her baby's blackest, but he was pretty incredible," said his daughter, Kathy Boyhan in Texas. "Anheuser-Busch bought the patent and paid my dad some royalties. It was pretty profitable."
In the world of food science, Hoover stacked up higher than a triple-decker sandwich, but in his mind he was always a farm boy with a Ph.D.
He grew up in Wrightsville, Ga., the youngest of 13 children, and he had to sit out the sixth grade to work the family farm. Food science was just an extension of a childhood spent pulling dinner out of the ground.
In his lab, he made goodies taste better, look nicer, last longer.
He turned his family into guinea pigs, feeding them samples. Boyhan lived a lab rat's life as his daughter, enduring so many experimental sweet potato patties that she swore off eating the starchy orange tubers until she turned 40.
Their house on Merwin Road, with its basement lab, was a shrine to the science of snacks.
"This man was doing things with soybeans before anybody knew what an edamame is," she said. "One year, he was the North Carolina 'yambassador.'"
His laboratory, his rules
It sounds like a whimsical occupation, tinkering with peanuts, looking for the recipe George Washington Carver missed. But Hoover was deadly serious about food research to the point of being strict. You did things his way in his lab.
Once, a member of the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. family arrived wearing a beard. No beards in the lab, Hoover told him.
Not that he was humorless. When Hoover retired from NCSU in 1982, after 25 years, he shunned the conservative, straight-laced ceremony being planned for him, explaining that he wouldn't attend any retirement dinner without a bar.
Hoover died quietly in Georgia, without fanfare, Feb. 8.But snack-lovers owe him tribute, and when they dip their hands into the can and pull out a flavorful, nonsticky nut with just the right color, they might roll it around on the tongue a bit longer and consider the professor in Raleigh who worked so hard to make it dazzle.
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