Mendal’s Joy: History of Peas

Very few foods get the same level of caché that peas get when discussing their place in history. What other food can lay claim to their use in the discovery of modern genetics? Could you imagine how different our world would be if Mendel used asparagus rather than peas? There’s a alternative fiction book by Harry Turtledove that you’ll never see.

Peas, in the form of field peas, were very likely one of the first crops developed by man. Archeologists have found evidence of peas at sites in Iraq dating back to 7000 BCE. It is guessed (and quite frankly, when it comes to foods of the ancient eras, there’s a fair amount of guessing), that peas originated in what is today modern northwest India and Afghanistan. But the peas back then weren’t the bright green garden variety we think of today. Instead they were most likely a smaller, darker version, cultivated more for it’s longevity (when dried) than it’s taste.

It was these dried peas that were common in ancient Greece and Rome. Roman Apicius, one of the first cookbook author in history, published no less than nine recipes for dried peas, indicating that the food was known, and used most often when fresh foods were unavailable. In other words, peas were likely a food of second or third choice.

It is unknown when peas hit China, although it’s probably safe to assume that they arrived in China before they arrived in Ancient Rome. It is said that the peas were called hu tou, which roughly translates to “foreign bean”. There are some folk who feel that it was the Chinese who cultivated peas to be eaten fresh, as well as eaten within the entire pod.

By the time the Middle Ages were in full swing, dried peas were commonplace and often perceived to be food of the poor. Fresh peas, not surprisingly, were seen as a delicacy and were something of a requirement on the dinner tables of the rich and noble. Several dozen varieties were noted with botanists of the era noting peas seeds that were large or small; white, yellow, gray or green seed colors; and smooth, pitted or wrinkled seeds. By the 1800s The Vegetable Garden, an encyclopedia of cultivated vegetable plants published in France, devoted 50 pages to the different varieties of cultivated peas, only some of which still are grown today.

The pea that first comes to most American minds is called the “garden pea” which did not arrive on the scene until the late 1700′s. The popularity of the pea was such that when canning methods were developed for commercial production, it was the little pea that was the first legume to get put into the can. The same for the frozen food industry.

So we’re going to take a look at peas over the coming weeks, with a few articles devoted to them, as well as a few recipes. If you have a favorite pea dish, let me know in the comments and I’ll see if I can’t dig up a decent recipe for it

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