It’s not spring yet, but I can’t
wait anymore. I get the hoe,
pull back the snow from the old
furrows, expose the rich dark earth.
I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,
one by one.
I see my grandmother’s hand,
doing just this, dropping peas
into gray gumbo that clings like clay.
This moist earth is rich and dark
as chocolate cake.
Her hands cradle
baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft
and hands them down to me, safe beside
the ladder leading up to darkness.
her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,
but mostly her hands.
I push a pea into the earth,
feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,
she says, in long straight rows,
dancing in light green dresses.
~Linda Hasselstrom “Planting Peas”
My earliest childhood memories include the taste and smell of fresh peas. We lived in farming country north of Seattle where 50 years ago hundreds of acres of peas were grown for canning and freezing. During the harvest, large pea harvesting machines would arrive for several days and travel down the road in caravans of 10 or 12, going from farm to farm to farm. They worked 24 hours a day to harvest as quickly as possible and traveled the roads late at night because they were so huge, they would take up both lanes of the country roads. Inevitably a string of cars would form behind the pea harvesters, unable to pass, so it became a grand annual parade celebrating the humble pea.
The smell in the air when the fields were harvested was indescribable except to say it was most definitely a “green” and deliciously fresh smell. The vines and pods would end up as silage for cattle and the peas would be separated to go to the cannery. I figured those peas were destined for the city dwellers because in our back yard garden, we grew plenty of our own.
Pea seeds, wrinkled and frankly a little boring, could be planted even before the last frost was done with us in March, or even sometimes on Washington’s birthday in February. The soil needed to not be frozen and not be sopping. True, the seeds might sit still for a few weeks, unwilling to risk germination until the coast was clear and soil warmed a bit, but once they were up out of the ground, there was no stopping them. We would generally have several rotations growing, in the hope of a 6 week pea eating season if we were fortunate, before the heat and worms claimed the vines and the pods.
We always planted telephone peas, so the support of the vines was crucial–we used hay twine run up and down between two taut smooth wires attached high and low between two wooden posts. The vines could climb 6 feet tall or better and it was fascinating to almost literally watch the pea tendrils wind their way around the strings (and each other), erotically clinging and wrapping themselves in their enthusiasm.
Once the pods start to form, impatience begins. I’d be out in the garden every day copping feels, looking for that first plump pod to pick and pop open. It never failed that I would pick too soon, and open a pod to find only weenie little peas, barely with enough substance to taste. Within a day or two, however, the harvest would be overwhelming, so we’d have to pick early in the morning while the peas were still cool from the night dew.
Then it was shelling time, which involved several siblings on a back porch, one mother supervising from a distance to make sure there weren’t too many peas being pelted in pique at an annoying little brother, and lots of bowls to catch the peas and the pods. A big paper sack of intact pods would yield only a few cups of peas, so this was great labor for small yield. Opening a pod of peas is extremely satisfying though; there is a tiny audible “pop” when the pod is pressed at the bottom, and then as your thumb runs down the inner seam of the pod loosening all the peas, they make a dozen little “pings” in the bowl when they fall. A symphony of pea shelling often accompanied by the Beach Boys and the Beatles.
Once the weather got hot, the pea worms would be at work in the pods, so then one encountered wiggly white larvae with little black heads and their webs inside the pods. We actually had a “Wormie” song we sung when we found one, even in the 60’s recognizing that our organic garden meant sharing the harvest with crawling protein critters. The peas would be bored through, like a hollowed out jack o’lantern, so those got dumped in the discard bowl.
The dull green coat of the raw pea turns bright green during the several minutes of blanching in boiling water, then they are plunged into ice water until cool and packed in ziplock bags. Those peas are welcomed to the table during the other 11 months out of the year, sometimes mixed with carrots, sometimes with mushrooms, sometimes chased with a little fresh garlic. They are simply the most lovely food there is other than chocolate.
From an undistinguished pea seed to intricate vines and coiling tendrils–from pregnant pods bursting at the seams to a bounty at meals: the humble pea does indeed deserve a grand parade in the middle of the night and the close attention of only the best grandmas.
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