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PEAS. Peas are among the oldest cultivated vegetables and once served as a dietary cornerstone for the early agrarian societies of Europe and the Middle East. The English word for pea derives from Latin pisum, a term that now serves as the name of the genus to which peas belong. Pea is thus used in English in two senses: as a descriptor for other pea-like vegetables, such as cowpeas, chickpeas, pigeon peas, and winged peas; and as the specific name for Pisum sativum, the peas employed by humans as food or for such agricultural uses as fodder and green manures.

Genetic Origins

All true peas belong to the same species, but are divided out into three distinct groups or subspecies. This means that even though peas are self-fertile, they readily hybridize in nature and as a result, there a numerous crosses that often blur the differences between the subspecies. This discussion will focus exclusively on the three sub-species and their historical uses as a source of food.

The genetic origin of peas is thought to be southwest Asia, somewhere in the vicinity of Afghanistan. The ancestral pea is now extinct, although its immediate descendants, the wild pea (Pisum sativum, spp. elatius and spp. humile ) survive in the Middle East. This is a vining plant with tiny flowers (often crimson or rose) that rambles over rocks or climbs on low bushes for support. Like modern peas, it has tendrils that allow it to use the limbs of nearby plants so that the pods are raised up and out of reach of rodents and other small animals. Stone Age sites in Greece and coastal Turkey dating from about 5700 b.c. have yielded carbonized remains of the elatius subspecies, whereas sites from the same period more inland in present Israel and especially the Tigris Valley, have produced remains of the subspecies humile. The general conclusion is that wild peas were recognized for their food value at an early date and were gathered both as a fresh vegetable in June (when the seeds are green and sweet) and as a dry seed for use during the rest of the year.

Wild peas later appear in the remains of Swiss lake dwellings (about 3000 b.c.e.), so it is evident that they were carried out of their native habitat into Europe and maintained either as a cultivated plant or as a managed plant in the wild. Since the pea formed a dietary triumvirate with lentils and such ancient grains as emmer, einkorn, and barley, it is likely that peas traveled as a useful weed along with the migration of early grains. Archaeological evidence suggests that wild peas were commonly found in areas planted with grain and that the entire plants were harvested, hung up and dried, then threshed as needed. Wild peas were mashed and cooked alone or with grains to make porridges, or they were ground into flour and mixed with other flours to make flat breads. Pea flour was also used as a medicine, especially in the treatment of wounds.

Cultivated Peas

The next step in the evolution of the pea was the appearance of the field pea, which is written botanically as Pisum sativum, spp. arvense. This is a form of pea that evolved artificially through human intervention and supplied early agricultural societies from China to Ireland with one of the most important staple foods down to the eighteenth century. Pease pottage was a common dish in the Middle Ages, and in India, vatana (dal made from peas) is still an important element of everyday diet. In the southern portion of the United States, people commonly refer to cowpeas as field peas, but the practical point is clear: this is not a plant grown in kitchen gardens; it is an American substitute form for the true field peas of Europe. Field peas, like wild peas, were harvested on the vine and dried in the barn. The peas were threshed as needed and the straw given as fodder to the livestock.

There are many heirloom varieties of field peas surviving today, although they are grown mostly as fodder or as a green manure (plowed under to enrich the soil). In the Middle Ages they were food for man and beast, and it is this type of pea that was introduced into China from India during the T'ang Dynasty. Pea soup even appears in early Buddhist texts as a healthful, albeit simple dish consistent with a monastic lifestyle.

Regardless of where they are cultivated, all field peas share certain common features that separate them from the so-called garden peas which later became more important. The vines are generally shorter and stronger than those of wild peas, the plants are more compact, and through natural mutation and careful selection over time, they normally yield a higher number of pods often with large seeds. However, to the casual viewer, the most distinctive feature is the flower, which is multicolored. Some of the most beautiful flowers in this species appear on field peas. Furthermore, the dry seeds are normally speckled. The tiny, speckled Jämtlands Grä Förder Ärt of Sweden, and the tan-seeded Groch Pomorski (Pomeranian Pea) of medieval Poland are two surviving examples of this type.

Field peas are often referred to in horticultural literature as gray peas, a term that seems to have evolved in the low countries owing to the color of the seed and the flour they yield. During the late Middle Ages, Capuchin monks in Holland and northern Germany devoted considerable energy to the improvement of field peas for agricultural purposes. This has resulted in a group of large-seeded gray peas referred to as Capuchin, especially those from the Netherlands where the breeding of new pea varieties became a national pastime by the early 1600s. One of the classic peas from this group and one which dates from the 1500s is the handsome blue pod Capucijner, a soup pea growing on six-foot (two m) vines.

Garden Peas

Dwarfism is a recessive gene in peas, and every so often short plants will appear in the field. This dwarfism was noted by Dutch growers in the seventeenth century and manipulated through careful selection to produce a variety of so-called bush types. Holland Capucijners with two-foot vines, and the delicious raisin Capucijners (which actually do look like dried raisins) represent a further evolution of this old category of pea. While they are technically field peas, these bush varieties were also adapted to kitchen gardens and therefore moved up a notch in culinary status. This brings us to the true garden pea, which is genetically different from its cousins in the field.

The garden pea is written botanically as Pisum sativum, spp. sativum and is readily recognized by its white flowers. The white flower suggests albinoism, especially since the flowers of wild peas are not naturally white. Genetic mutation is further supported by the fact that the seeds are generally very light in color, from near-white to yellow, and when dry are either smooth or wrinkled. Horticulturists now group garden peas by these seed textures since the two types yield peas with different culinary characteristics. Both types, however, contain more sugar than field peas when green, and it was this unusual sweetness that probably first caught the attention of observant gardeners in the Mediterranean some two thousand years ago.

The common white flowering garden pea was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but its precise place of origin and date of appearance is unknown. It appears to have been treated as an aristocratic vegetable, hence its mention by Apicius and other classical authors. It was raised in the gardens of the great Roman estates for the luxury of the nobility, but it was not food for the masses: field peas were their sustenance. Garden peas continued to be grown during the Middle Ages, again as food for the aristocracy and church princes. It is not until the horticultural revolution of the 1600s that we find this pea moving into middle-class gardens. The Dutch took the lead in developing new varieties like the tender mangetouts (snap or sugar peas) and the dwarf petit pois, but it was the French court of Louis XIV that made green peas fashionable. During the reign of William and Mary, Dutch horticultural enthusiasm caught on in England, and England has remained the center of pea development ever since.

The English have developed elaborate horticultural categories for classifying peas, but doubtless their marrowfats stand out as a singular contribution to this class of vegetable. Marrowfats are peas that are sweet and buttery when cooked green, although they are rarely sold that way in England. Their dry seeds are somewhat chalky in appearance and reduce to a creamy texture when used in soups. Most commonly they are canned, and as a canned product, they became a standard feature of English cookery by the late Victorian period. The very best varieties were developed by Thomas Andrew Knight (17591838), a genteel horticulturist who was responsible for a wide range of improved fruits and vegetables. Many of Knight's peas were used by later breeders like Thomas Laxton and Alan MacLean to create some of the Victorian varieties that are still popular today, among them Laxton's Fill-basket (1872) and MacLean's Paradise Marrow (also known as Champion of Paris) introduced in the 1850s.

On the other side of the English Channel, the Paris seed house of Vilmorin introduced some of the most popular pea varieties in nineteenth-century Europe, especially several French varieties that are now much sought after by Paris chefs. These would include Gloire de Quimper, a dwarf bush pea of the petit pois type similar to American Wonder, the scimitar-podded Serpette d'Auvergne from the 1830s, and the Pois Géant sans Parchemin (Giant Sugar Pea), which has bicolor flowers, a tell-tale sign of its field pea ancestry.

Through trade contacts with the Dutch and Portuguese, the Chinese and Japanese were introduced to mangetouts (sugar peas) in the seventeenth century. Since then, they have developed numerous new varieties of tender-podded peas popularly referred to in present-day seed catalogs as snow peas or Chinese peas. The sprouts and young pods are commonly employed in stir-fries and should not be confused with commercial American snap peas. Snap peas are large sweet peas with a crisp, edible pod. This name is somewhat misleading since many peas, like the Sickle Pea of the eighteenth century, can be eaten whole like a snap pea when picked very young. Snap peas are really nothing more than an improvement of the old melting marrows or melting sugar peas, as they were called in the 1800s.

Many of the more recently developed varieties, like the Slim Pea, or the odd Parsley Pea with its bushy tendrils, have evolved to reflect very specific shifts in contemporary diet. In the case of the Slim Pea, it makes an ideal freezing pea for small gardens owning to its diminutive vines, not to mention that the name implies weight loss and low calories (peas are very high in calories). Peas were among the first vegetables marketed as frozen food in the 1920s, and today there is increasing commercial interest in varieties that can be frozen and then cooked in the microwave oven. The Parsley Pea represents a much different mentality, since it is a pea that appeals to organic gardeners and followers of macrobiotic or vegetarian diets. Its peas and pods are edible and its tendrils may be cooked and transformed into faux seaweed salad for a meal with the ascetic appointments of Taoist simplicity.

See also British Isles: England ; Frozen Food ; India ; Legumes ; Low Countries ; Mediterranean Diet ; Porridge ; Tillage .


Hedrick, U. P., ed. The Vegetables of New York: Peas of New York. Albany: State of New York, Education Dept., 1928.

Körber-Grohne, Udelgard. Nutzpflanzen in Deutschland. Stuttgart: Konrad Theiss Verlag, 1988.

Miller, Naomi F., and Kathryn L. Gleason, eds. The Archaeology of Garden and Field. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Vilmorin-Andrieux, M. M. The Vegetable Garden (London, 1885).

Weaver, William Woys. Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Growing, Seed Saving, and Cultural History. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1997.

William Woys Weaver

Peas the French Way

Shell your Peas, and pass a quarter of a Pound of Butter, gold Colour, with a Spoonful of Flour; then put in a Quart of Peas, four Onions cut small, and two Cabbages cut as small as the Onions; then put in half a Pint of Gravy, season with Pepper, Salt, and Cloves. Stove this well an Hour, then put in half a Spoonful of fine Sugar, and fry some Artichokes to lay round the Side of the Dish; serve it with a forced Lettuce in the Middle.

SOURCE: Adam's Luxury, and Eve's Cookery (London, 1744).