In a letter dated May 10, 1696, French noble Madame de Maintenon wrote: “This subject of peas continues to absorb all others. The anxiety to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them and the desire to eat them again, are the three great matters which have been discussed by our princes for four days past. Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal table and well supped too, returning to their own homes at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness.”
The above quote leaves me both concerned for Madame de Maintenon, her pea-brained friends and their obviously unhealthy obsession with peas, and intrigued by the subject of this maddening legume. Why did the ladies of the French Court risk indigestion for the sake of a pea-studded bedtime snack? Maybe you’re curious, too, dear readers, and so I present pisum sativum: the charming, dynamic, and utterly underrated (though not in 1696!) green pea.
the legendary legume
Even before considering the specifics of the pea, its status as a legume ought to be noted. Members of this plant family usually bear simple dry fruit that are accessed through dehiscence, or the opening of a mature plant structure (think cracking open a pea pod to get at those pearls of green goodness). Stars of the legume family include peas, beans, lentils, soy, and peanuts, to get you thinking along the right track. Beyond being delicious, legumes win the hearts of green-thumbs for their natural ability to fix nitrogen, meaning they can be used to replenish soil that has been depleted of nitrogen, thus reducing fertilizer costs for farmers and gardeners. (Note: not only are legumes a more cost-efficient alternative to fertilizers, they’re more environmentally-friendly to boot.)
However, legumes truly shine in tandem with grains. What the legume lacks in amino acids, the grain provides, resulting–to vegetarians’ and vegans’ delight–in a complete serving of animal product-free protein. Most people know what a dynamite duo beans and rice make for this reason, but the wonders of pea plus grain may be less known (keep this in mind when you scroll up for a protein-rich tabbouleh recipe).
And if my (and Madame de Maintenon’s) enthusiasm isn’t enough to convince you, let science speak for itself. A 2004 study by the National Ageing Research Institute concluded that legumes are the most important dietary predictor of survival in older people. It’s evidence like this that leaves some singing, “Beans, beans, the wonderful fruit.”
history, varieties and nutritional facts
Pea experts trace the pea’s thousands-of-years old origin to Central Asia and the Middle East. In fact, the green pea is widely recognized as one of the first food crops to ever be cultivated by humans. Today, three main varieties of peas exist for culinary consumption: the garden or English pea, the snow pea, and the sugar snap pea. The latter two are eaten whole before the pod reaches maturity, while the garden pea is shelled before enjoying (the photos in this post feature sugar snap peas).
Nutritionally, it pays to eat peas. Besides being petite powerhouses of fiber and protein, peas provide a reliable source of essential omega-3 fatty acids as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. New studies show that this vegetable may also be effective in protecting against stomach cancer.
Forgive me, but the linguistics lover in me can’t resist. The word pea is an example of the process of back-formation, one of the many fascinating processes by which words are formed and changed in the English language. In this example, the term pea was adopted from the Latin pisum, arriving into English as the noun pease (plural peasen). Yet, language likes repeating patterns, and pretty soon speakers began using the singular pease as the plural form (understandable, given that many English nouns are pluralized by adding –s). This trend made it necessary to construct a new singular form by dropping the s, and so pea was born.