Fun facts and a recipe for fresh peas

Kids love peas—as long as you don’t make them eat them. (Eating fresh peas out of the garden is different.) The tiny spheres are fun to push around on your plate, and push off your plate, onto the floor, where the dog, faithful friend, eats them happily, thus relieving you of that onerous chore. Peas are hard to get on your fork, again because they’re spheres, which is why you don’t often get them in restaurants. Your waiter doesn’t want to see you struggling with your peas.

Peas are just another fruit. That’s right, your favorite fresh vegetable isn’t, because—botanically speaking—pods that contain seeds that developed from the ovary of a flower are a fruit.

Peas have been cultivated since the dawn of agriculture. These would have been so-called field peas, which are dried. A fifth-century CE cookbook written in late Latin, called the Apicius, has nine pea recipes, indicating how important the fruit was to Eurasian cuisine.

Dried peas are called pulses. The pulses, by definition, are the dried fruits of the legume family, including lentils, beans, chickpeas, and field peas.

Eating peas fresh in an immature state is a luxury that developed in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. The French called these peas mange-tout, “eat alls,” because they were consumed pod and all. For over-indulgent aristocracy of the era, eating fresh peas before bed was thought to stave off indigestion.

Legumes do good things for soil by “fixing” nitrogen. Although the atmosphere is chock full of nitrogen, it is not available to plants. It takes the action of microorganisms working in the rhizome of legumes to “fix” nitrogen in the plant’s root nodules. When the plant dies, the nitrogen, usually in the form of ammonia, is released and made available to other living things.

Peas have contributed to science, as Gregor Mendel’s observations of peas led to the development of his theory of genetic inheritance. He grew about 30,000 pea plants for his experiments between 1856 and 1863. Although he published his findings while still alive, no one thought them important until many decades later, when his results were rediscovered (by Washington State’s own William Jasper Spillman around 1911, among others), and recognized as evidence of discontinuous inheritance.

We get the word “pea” from Latin pisum via the Greek pison. It was first adopted into English as pise or the homophonic pease (as in the staple porridge relentlessly served hot, cold, or just plain old). In older forms of English, peasen was the plural. Later, as English switched to using “s” as a plural marker, the word pease was reinterpreted as a plural, and the terminal “se” was dropped, giving us the modern pea by the linguistic process of back-formation.


Creamed Peas with Onions

If nothing is better than sugar snap peas eaten straight off the vine while standing in the moonlight, slathering them in butter has to rank a close second. After all, everything is better with butter and/or bacon.

You can go straight to the holiday table with this classic side dish, or use it as a jumping off point for creations of your own. For instance, consider making the white sauce with dill butter, or serving creamed peas over salmon patties, or adding ham, mushrooms and garlic into the recipe. Or, add bacon and really live large! This recipe works with frozen peas and onions out of a jar, as well, of course, with fresh ingredients.


4 Tbs butter

4 Tbs all-purpose flour

1.5 c milk

1 lb. frozen peas and onions, thawed (if fresh, or buying separately, use about 12 oz. peas to 4 oz. onions)

  • In a large skillet, melt the butter, then slowly add the flour, stirring constantly, until flour is evenly coated.
  • Over medium heat, add the milk about ½ c at a time while stirring constantly, until the sauce is thick.
  • Add peas and onions, cook until hot; season with salt and pepper.