A pea, although treated as a vegetable in cooking, is botanically a fruit; the term is most commonly used to describe the small spherical seeds or the pods of the legume Pisum sativum. The name is also used to describe other edible seeds from the Fabaceae like the pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), the cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), and the seeds from several species of Lathyrus.
P. sativum is an annual plant, with a lifecycle of one year. It is a cool season crop grown in many parts of the world; planting can take place from winter through to early summer depending on location. The average pea weighs between 0.1 and 0.36 grams. The species is used as a fresh vegetable, frozen or canned, but is also grown to produce dry peas like the split pea. These varieties are typically called field peas.
P. sativum has been cultivated for thousands of years. The sites of cultivation have been described in southern Syria and southeastern Turkey, and some argue that the cultivation of peas with wheat and barley seems to be associated with the spread of Neolithic agriculture into Europe.
The pea is a green, pod-shaped fruit, widely grown as a cool-season vegetable crop. The seeds may be planted as soon as the soil temperature reaches 10°C, with the plants growing best at temperatures of 55" to 65"F (13-18°C). They do not thrive in the summer heat of warmer temperate and lowland tropical climates but do grow well in cooler high altitude tropical areas. Many cultivars reach maturity about 60 days after planting. Generally, peas are to be grown outdoors during the winter, not in greenhouses. Peas grow best in slightly acidic, well-drained soils.
Peas have both low-growing and vining cultivars. The vining cultivars grow thin tendrils from leaves that coil around any available support and can climb to be 1-2 m high. A traditional approach to supporting climbing peas is to thrust branches pruned from trees or other woody plants upright into the soil, providing a lattice for the peas to climb. Branches used in this fashion are called pea brush. Metal fences, twine, or netting supported by a frame are used for the same purpose. In dense plantings, peas give each other some measure of mutual support. Pea plants do not need pollination from other plants as they have special properties that allow them to pollinate themselves and make more genetic copies. This is the reason Gregor Mendel experimented on these fascinating plants.
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Eat Your Vegetables!“
For hundreds of years now, whether John Evelyn in Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets in 1699, the Beecher sisters in the mid-1800s, or the modern Five-a-Day campaign we see today in grocery stores and women’s magazines, someone has exhorted us to eat our vegetables. The plain fact of that necessary encouragement tells us much of what we need to know of vegetables’ historic place in the diet: mainly, their relative cultural neglect. In earlier times most people prized food with status and much needed calories – grains and meat. People certainly accepted lighter fare – fish and vegetables – as necessary and even desirable, welcoming the flavor of fresh, new vegetables as they appeared in each season, the tonic of greens in the spring, the freshness of new potatoes, sweet peas in July, and the roasted fresh corn of later summer. But bread was the staff of life, and meat the primary object of effort.
There now, don’t we all feel bad about putting vegetables at the bottom of our list of favorite foods? But I think it can’t be denied that Sandy Oliver’s comments, above (from Food History News, Spring 1998), are so true. Anyone with young children knows it’s true. Myself, I am ashamed to confess that as a child I hated peas. But for a long time now, I have had a real appreciation of brand new sweet peas fresh out of the pod, so let’s take a closer look at peas, how to grow them, and a few recipes using peas!
More about Peas…
In a later issue of Food History News, Vol XI, No. IV, Sandy has this to say:
“Now that beans and other legumes with grains form the base of the 20th century’s “New” Food Pyramid, we might want to take a closer look at the base of “Old” Food Pyramid of several centuries before. Legumes and grains have sustained vast populations for thousands of years. Consumed together, they form a more complete protein, and nutritionally, compare favorably with meat. We have, in our time, discovered scientific reasons for what people in earlier times understood instinctively – that legumes are a good source of protein and carbohydrates. FHN discussed baked beans years ago, but has neglected peas, particularly the most familiar Pisam sativum var. sativum and the sort preferred for drying, var. arvense. While some other legumes are called “pea” (for example, chickpeas, cow peas, black eyed peas) they belong to other genera.
“North American settlers arrived here with a decided preference for peas. Peas grew well as a field crop in England and climatically cooler parts of Europe, where they had been grown from antiquity. Though peas as a field crop, often mentioned in the same breath with wheat, oats, corn, and other grains, were certainly grown in New England’s early settlements, with some sources claiming they were as good as any in England, a shift to beans was one of the many adaptations caused by hotter and humid American summers which withered peas on the vine and promoted molds, mildews, and other pea-defying problems. Gradually, certain varieties were selected that grew well here…
“Peas, like beans and corn, have the virtue of being useful food at several stages of growth. Eaten as “green” or “new,” [fresh] peas…provided the substance preferred in cooked vegetables in the 18th and 19th centuries….Allowed to stay on the vine past a tender age, peas could still be shelled out, and cooked for a longer time. Allowed to dry further, they could be shelled or threshed, and stored over winter.
Early Varieties of Peas
In her 1797 American Cookery, Amelia Simmons describes peas which she was familiar with:
“The Crown Imperial, takes rank in point of flavor, they blossom, purple and white on top of the vines, will run from three to five feet high, should be set in light sandy soil only, or they run too much to vines.
The Crown Pea, is second in richness of flavor.
The Rondeheval [Rounceval?], is large and bitterish.
Early Carlton, is produced first in the season – good.
Marrow Fats, green, yellow and is large, easily cultivated, not equal to others.
Sugar Pea, needs no buch, the pods are tender and good to eat, easily cultivated.
panish Manratto, is a rich Pea, require a strong high bush.
“All Peas should be picked carefully from the vines as soon as dew is off, shelled and cleaned without water, and boiled immediately; they are thus the richest flavored.
A Famine Averted??
In John Gerard’s Historie of Plants, 1797, he records a mention in Stowes Chronicle, in Anno 1555, “…of a certain Pulse or Pease, as they term it, wherewith the poore people at that time there being a great dearth, were miraculously helped…” According to the story, in the month of August, a barren place (“…where nether grew grasse, nor any earth was ever seene…”) suddenly produced a great abundance of “Peason” with no tillage or sowing. The poor gathered “…above an hundred quarters, yet remained some ripe and some blossoming, as many as ever there were before…” When the Bishop of Norwich, accompanied by a Lord and many others went to this place, they found nothing but “hard rockie stone the space of three yards under the roots of these Peason: which roots were great and long, and very sweet.”
“These Pease, which by their great encrease did such good to the poore that yeare, without doubt grew there for many yeares before, but were not observed till hunger made them take notice of them, and quickned their invention, which commonly in our people is very dull, especially in finding out food of this nature.”
Once again, Sandy to comes to our assistance. Vol XI, No. IV, tells us that split peas are a fairly recent development, with the earliest mention in the OED being 1736. “Dried peas out of their husks will naturally fall apart. Modern split peas are produced by running them through a paddled-lined tumbler with humidity controlled air blowing away the husks. The peas splits polis one another in the process which gives them the bright green we are accustomed to seeing.”
What about Germans and peas?
William Woys Weaver, in the second edition of Sauerkraut Yankees, tells us that in 18th c Pennsylvania, peas generally meant dried peas, such as Holland Capucijners or the Carling peas of the English. “During the Middle Ages, the poor in Germany and England used ground dried peas to make bread, but it was not until the 18th c that green peas became generally popular, mostly due to English horticulture.” BTW, the German word for peas is Erbsen, and in Pennyslvania Dutch dialect is Arbse.
The Sammlung vieler Vorschriften von allerlen Koch- und Backwerk fuer junges Frauenzimmer (Collection of Recipes) published in Stuttgart in 1787, contains several recipes for cooking peas (see recipe section, below.)
From Foxfire 2, Eliot Wiggington, Ed.
“Ever’body planted these old clay peas. I ain’t seen’em in over twenty years. Th’seeds of’em’s about t’run out. People used t’always plant’em in their cornfield.
“Well, they’d go and pick’em and carry’em and pile’em up in great big ol’piles. Put’em on big sheets, y’know. Then we’d all cut us a pole t’beat with and you’d just beat, then you’d stir up a while, and then you’d beat again. Th’hulls’ud pile up on top. Then you’d stir t’get y’some more up that hadn’t been hit, y’know. Then you’d beat’em again.
“They’d grow lots a’them back in ‘em’days. They’d grow’em and sell th’things. You could buy’em fer nothin’ nearly a bushel. But still, that was a way a’getting’some money. You hat t’do th’best y’could. They growed them peas, and what they didn’t eat, they sold. And they’d get out there and we’d thrash’em out fer’em. Thrash’em old peas out – have th’goodest old time y’ever seen.
A Selection of Recipes from Historic Sources
From The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, 1796 edition
To boil green Pease.
Shell your pease just before you want them, put them into a very small quantity of boiling water, with a little salt and a lump of loaf sugar, when they begin to dent in the middle they are enough, strain them in a sieve, put a good lump of butter into a mug or small dish, give your pease a shake up with the butter, put them on a dish, and send them to table. Boil a spring of mint in another water, chop it fine, and lay it in lumps round the edge of your dish.
Take a quart of shelled peas, cut a large Spanish onion, or two middling ones small, and two cabbage or Silesia lettuces cut small, put them into a sauce-pan with half a pint of water, season them with a little salt, a little beaten pepper, and a little beaten mace and nutmeg; cover them close and let them stew a quarter of an hour, then put in a quarter of a pound of fresh butter rolled in a little flour, a spoonful of catchup, a little piece of burnt butter as big as a nutmeg; cover them close and let it simmer softly an hour, often shaking the pan. When it is enough, serve it up for a side-dish.
To keep Green Peas till Christmas.
Take fine young peas, shell them, throw them into boiling water with some salt in, let them boil five or six minutes, throw them into a cullender to drain; then lay a cloth four or five times double on a table, and spread them on; dry them very well, and have your bottles ready, fill them and cover them with mutton-fat tried; when it is a little cool, fill the necks almost to the top, cork them, tie a bladder and a lath over them, and set them in a cool dry place. When you use them, boil your water, put in a little salt, some sugar, and a piece of butter; when they are boiled enough, throw them into a sieve to drain; then put them into a sauce-pan with a good piece of butter, keep shaking it round all the time till the butter is melted, then turn them into a dish, and send them to table.
From Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, ed. Karen Hess
“It is of interest to note that pease was originally singular in form (plural, peasen).”
“Of their virtues, Gerard says: “The Pease, as Hippocrates saith, is less windie than Beans,” but agrees with Galen that they should nevertheless be eaten with prudence. Coriander seeds, with their warm spicy fragrance, are delicious in all legume dishes; along with the other herbs and spices, also considered to be hot and dry, they were thought to temper the cold and windy effects of peas. Even garlic, rare in English cookery, was called upon.
Also in this wonderful cookery book, is an in-depth discussion of pottage and porridge and just how they relate
From The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, 1824
“To have them in perfection, they must be quite young, gathered early in the morning, kept in a cool place, and not shelled until they are to be dressed…”
Dried Pea Soup.
Take one quart of split peas, or Lima beans which are better, put them in three quarts of very soft water with three onions chopped up, pepper and salt; boil them two hours; wash them well and pass them through a sieve; return the liquid into the pot, thicken it with a large piece of butter and flour, put in some slices of nice salt pork, and a large tea-spoonful of celery-seed pounded; boil it till the pork is done, and serve it up; have some toasted bread cut into dice and fried in butter, which must be put in the tureen before you pour in the soup.
Leg of Pork with Pease Pudding.
Boil a small leg of pork that has been sufficiently salted, score the top and serve it up; the pudding must be in a separate dish; get small delicate peas, wash them well, and tie them in a cloth, allowing a little room for swelling, boil them with the pork, then mash and season them, tie them up again and finish boiling it; take care not to break the pudding in turning it out.
From The American Frugal Housewife, by Mrs. Child, 1833
“Green peas should be boiled from twenty minutes to sixty, according to their age…”
“When green peas have become old and yellow, they may be made tender and green by sprinkling in a pinch or two of pearlash, while they are boiling. Pearlash has the same effect upon all summer vegetables, rendered tough by being too old. If your well-water is very hard, it is always an advantage to use a little pearlash in cooking.”
“Dried peas need not be soaked over night. They should be stewed slowly four or five hours in considerable water, with a piece of port. The older beans and peas are, the longer they should cook. Indeed this is the case with all vegetables.”
From The Carolina Housewife, by Sarah Rutledge, 1847
SOUP WITH (SO CALLED) GREEN FROGS
Mix two ounces of butter, one egg, two ounces of bread, (also green peas,) and a little nutmeg well together. Then take some large leaves of spinach, hold each, one or two minutes in boiling water, then again in cold, lay the leaves on a plate, put on each leaf a spoonful of the above mass, wrap it up and put several leaves around each one. Put one ounce of butter in a stew-pan, lay the frogs in one above the other, pour in as much broth as will cover the frogs, and let them boil a quarter of an hour; then put the frogs in the tureen and pour your bouillion over it. – German Receipt.