How Peas Got a Bad Rap

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
May 24 2013 9:02 AM

Dinner vs. Child: Peas, Please!

macaroni peas 1
Macaroni Peas.

Photo by James Ransom

Dinner vs. Child is a biweekly column about cooking for children, and with children, and despite children, originally published in Food52 and now appearing on Brow Beat. You can read previous installments of Dinner vs. Child here. You can read Day’s Slate blog about infancy, How Babies Work, here.

This week: How peas got a bad rap.

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Why do children have to eat their peas? As in: eat your peas.

There is, after all, no vegetable that requires less inducement to eat than peas. 

I have a clear memory of Isaiah, at almost three, mowing down a row of sweet peas with the methodical rigor of someone who has stumbled upon something good and is determined to extract every last bit of pleasure from it: snap, chew, step. I remember being worried that he would eat all the sweet peas. (I am a horrible, selfish parent.) I remember that he basically did.

This wasn’t because he was an especially good eater, or because he especially liked to eat vegetables out of the garden. It was because he’d discovered we were growing dessert. Sweet peas are the original county-fair, outer-space, Dippin-Dots ice cream.

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Photo by James Ransom.

So why is eating peas a chore? Because during the age of canned goods, peas became less vegetable and more metaphor. This made sense: they actually were less vegetable. As Alan Davidson writes, dryly, “Most kinds of canned peas bear little resemblance to the fresh vegetable and may be considered a separate food item.”

Peas became a sentence to be served, a character-building exercise. Even before the stern dictates of canned peadom, though, peas were embedded in childhood: pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old. (Pease porridge or pudding was a sludgy mess of dried-pea porridge. Pea is actually a back-formation of pease: pease was erroneously assumed to be plural, so pea became singular. Now you know.) It is worth noting that, in the nursery rhyme, the children are not complaining about the pease porridge. Even when it is nine days old. Those children in 1762 were fierce.

So peas took flight from their actual vegetal selves and nobly filled a hole in the language. The irony is that eating peas is no longer a chore: canned peas have been replaced by frozen peas, and frozen peas are recognizably pea-like. They can be eaten without any character being built.

But they are stuck with their reputation—today’s peas suffer for the sins of processors past.  To wit, from a couple of years ago, Obama on the deficit: “It's not going to get easier. It's going to get harder. So we might as well do it now: pull off the Band-Aid, eat our peas.”

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The recipe below is more peas than pasta, by weight and by number. I counted. (I count to fifty every day, just to stay in shape.) It is clever; it is last-minute; it is a shade of green so sharp you could cut yourself on it. You could paint your kitchen cabinets with the leftovers. I have children who could help you. 

It’s from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new vegetable cookbook, River Cottage Veg, and it is a play on a Nigella Lawson risotto recipe: Basically, you blitz half the peas and use them as sauce. It is a canvas: you could add bacon; you could add ham; you could add toasted almonds or clumps of ricotta. Or none of the above.

Do I recommend using fresh peas? Of course. Did I? Of course not. I used frozen.

Macaroni Peas

Adapted from River Cottage Veg by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Ten Speed Press, 2013)

Serves 4

1 pound shelled small peas, fresh or frozen
10 ounces pasta, in a small shape (like macaroni, fusilli, orecchiette)
3 tablespoons butter
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/4 cup parmesan, coarsely grated

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was published in April 2013. Follow him on Twitter.