Who knew at the age of six I had met my nemesis. And yet, there they were, bobbing like green buoys in a brown pool of soup. Sure, there were chunks of carrots and cubes of potatoes but I couldn’t get past the green pellets. It started innocently enough: my cousin and I had played all the way to lunchtime and worked up an appetite. A tureen of soup was set in the middle of the table. My aunt spooned the steaming broth into bowls and passed one to each of us. I eyed my bowl dubiously. Though my parents had taken off for a romantic 48-hour trip I could hear my mom’s voice in my head chiding me to be a good child and guest, to eat the soup without incident. The spoon cautiously dipped into the liquid and one pea the color of vomit floated onto the new raft. I blew on the spoon to cool off the soup, secretly hoping the pea might be blown off course and jump ship. Instead, I sipped and chewed on something starchy that filled my mouth with an off-putting flavor. It’s no coincidence that the color of bile matches that of the pea and it took all of my six-year old mettle to sequester each pea in my mouth, swallowing them whole, praying my gullet wouldn’t close and repeal their entry. I swore on that day that no pea would pass through again as I emptied my bowl and swished away from the table.
Years later, in a kitchen on the outskirts of San Francisco, a small saucepan had been set over low flame. Though a lid separated me from seeing what was steaming, I didn’t need eyesight to know that peas had crossed the kitchen threshold. At the time, I lived with four roommates in a rambling house near the Golden Gate Bridge. We shared our lives and the fridge, blocked off in 9×5 quadrants of icebox space by name. I passed one of my roommates en route to the refrigerator, her hand pulling back the lid and releasing pea steam as if a dare or a taunt. Before she asked the question, I knew the answer. No, thank you. I don’t know what it was about that evening that softened my stubborn resolve. Perhaps it’s because I was now an adult leaving childish things behind, puffing up my chest with pride. But, really I think it’s because I knew if I said no, I would never hear the end of her teasing. So, I speared one bright green pea onto my fork and ushered it quickly into my mouth as if speed and dexterity might eviscerate all the years of strict, single-minded avoidance. Instead, the pea burst with sweetness. Something changed in my opinion of the pea as soon as the thought entered my mind, “It tastes like green corn!” Just like that, peas had flown out of the no-fly zone. I scooped a small mound onto my plate.
If you had looked up the term “picky eater” in the dictionary, my sullen mini mug shot would have gazed out at you, glowering from the page. Some parents bartered, others bargained, but my parents did not adopt that approach to parenting. Once, I sat in a high noon stand-off with a small plate of alligator meat that my Dad promised tasted like chicken. I couldn’t leave the table without taking a bite and so I warmed my seat for several hours before caving and discovering that yes, alligator did taste like chicken. And, so did grilled rattlesnake many years later. But at that time, he had built in me a belief that if you tried something once and didn’t like it, you never had to eat it again. Had I held to that idea I never would have discovered that I actually like peas.
If you look deep enough, you will find a legion of abstainers, sort of devotees who pass on eating peas. Michael Procopio of “Food for the Thoughtless” tried and liked his first pea at the tender age of 40. One writer described them as tasting of “dead people” which might carry particular weight if the writer is one part zombie. When Melissa Clark suggested making guacamole with peas, the entire internet banded together with a resounding, NO in what surely will be remembered as #Guacamolegate. The hatred is real, people. What it took me 15 years to discover is that the foods I avoided as a child in large part owed that avoidance to texture (sorry, lima beans, I still haven’t quite made peace with you).
It never occurred to me at the time that the cooking method might be to blame instead of the vegetable. I still find the idea of boiled peas that dream of becoming a mushy mess repulsive. Canned peas, no can do. Once wrinkled, they are wrecked. Somehow split peas skirted the issue, being sorted in a different category by being pulverized into soup. You may not know it but recently peas have plotted a plan to secretly infiltrate the American diet. They wield their power in the form of pea powder—you might be eating peas and not even know it. The darling of functional food products, pea powder pumps up the protein in plant-based burgers and in cereal too (Is it sweet? Is it savory?) This pernicious powder is the main ingredient in puffed pea snacks stocked in the produce section and also mixed into protein bars, most of which I still eschew.
But in the spring when fresh peas begin populating the farmer’s market, they don’t need much to become marvelous. Nudge them out of their pods. Then, give them a quick steam just until they pop with vivid color. Still crisp, these beauties beg for a sprinkling of good sea salt, perhaps a pat of butter, and on days when I’m feeling fancy, a chiffonade of fresh mint leaves. And, let it be known, that combination makes a mighty fine soup, the very color of spring or grass glimmering from summer sun. You can puree peas with fresh ricotta to smear onto toast. Or, stir them into a pot of risotto with cubes of ham and Parmesan for a midweek meal that’s too easy to call fine dining. And, when their short season comes to an end, frozen peas pass the texture test—provided they’re not overcooked. If you too, experienced repulsion toward peas as a child, perhaps it’s time to try them for the first time. All I am saying, is give peas a chance.
Photo by Caroline, Flickr Creative Commons