Pass the peas please!

No one is happier than I am about the preponderance of peas. We are nearing legume lunacy — snap, sugar, English, snow and others adorn many gardens and many minds.

“This subject of peas continues to absorb all others,” Madame de Maintenon wrote in 1696. “Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness.”

You might consider me one of those ladies: hungry or not, I will happily eat peas. My only other gastronomic obsession at this time of the year is strawberries — local ones are unfortunately in short supply this year.

But I digress from the gorgeous green gems.

While cultivated garden peas may be grabbing the praise, don’t forget about the wild peas that Mother Nature has been tending. Beach peas bloom purple on the dunes of Island beaches. They too will bear peas in their delicate pods.

More praise for peas comes from Capt. Thomas James, after whom Canada’s James Bay is named.

In 1632, he wrote of the native beach pea: “Here I am to remember God’s goodness towards us in sending those aforementioned green vetches. For now our feeble sick men that could not for their lives stir these two or three months (they had scurvy) can endure the air and walk about the house; our other sick men gathered strength also, and it is wonderful to see how soon they were recovered. We used them in the manner: twice a day we went gather the herb or leaf of these vetches as they first appeared out of the ground; then did we wash and boil them , and so with oil and vinegar that had been frozen, we did eat them. It was an excellent sustenance and refreshing; the most part of us ate nothing else.”

Even though I have eaten the peas and the leaves worked wonders for the captain, sources disagree on their edibility.

Cape Cod oystermen also “liked the beach pea cooked green, as well as the cultivated. I had seen it grow abundantly in Newfoundland, where also the inhabitants ate them,” noted Henry David Thoreau.

Peas are actually a fruit from a plant in the legume family. Legumes are legendary for their nitrogen-fixing ability and high protein content.

Fresh peas will not be around for long, so devour them while you can. If, like me, you enjoy them raw, you are in the minority. Only about 5 per cent of the farmed pea crop is eaten fresh; the rest are canned or frozen.

Gregor Mendel, the Austrian scientist, was another pea person. Together, we would be two peas in a pod. While my interest is mainly culinary and amateur, his was professional and genetic — it could perhaps even be called a pea obsession. In a span of eight years, he tested and studied 29,000 pea plants — generation after generation, variation after variation — to develop Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance, which describe the basic laws of genetics.

No matter if it is in the name of science or dinner, I have only one wish. That is for peas on earth, goodwill towards men and any other generous purveyor of plentiful peas.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.