1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Originally Published August 1949

P is for peas …

… naturally! … and for a few reasons why the best peas I ever ate in my life were, in truth, the best peas I ever ate in my life.

Every good cook, from Fannie Farmer Escoffier, agrees on three things about these delicate messengers to our palates from the kind Earth-mother: they must be very green, they must be freshly gathered, and they must be shelled at the very last second of the very last minute.

My peas, that is, the ones that reached an almost unbelievable summit of perfection for me and can most probably never happen quite so fortunately again, met these three gastronomical requirements to a point of near-ridiculous exactitude. It is possible, however, that even this technical impeccability would not have been enough without the mysterious blending, that one time, of weather, place, other hungers than my own. After all, I can compare bliss with near bliss, for I have often, blessed me, eaten superlative green peas.

Once my grandmother ran out into her garden, filled her apron with the fattest pods, sat rocking jerkily with a kind of nervous merriment for a very few minutes as she shelled them, and, before we knew it, had put down upon the white-covered table a round dish of peas in cream. We ate them with our spoons, something we never could have done at home! Perhaps that added to their fragile, poignant flavor…but not much: they were truly good.

And then one time in Paris, in June (What a hackneyed but wonderful combination of the somewhat overrated time-and-place motif!), I lunched at Foyot’s, and in the dim room where hothouse roses stood on all the tables in a month when roses climbed crazily outside on every trellis, I watched the headwaiter, as skilled as a magician, dry peas over a flame in a generous pan, add what looked like an equal weight of butter that almost visibly sent out a cloud of sweet-smelling hay and meadow air, and then swirl the whole.

At the end he did a showy trick, more to amuse himself than me, but I sat open-mouthed at it and can still see the the arc of little green vegetables flow up into the air and then fall, with a satisfying shush, back into the pan some three or four feet below and at least a yard from where they took off. I gasped, the headwaiter bowed faintly but with pride…and then we went about the comparatively mundane procedure of serving, tasting, and eating.

Those petits pois au beurre were, like my grandmother’s à la crème mode d’lowa, good, very good. They made me think of paraphrasing Sydney Smith’s remark about strawberries and saying, “Doubtless God could have made a better green pea, but doubtless he never did.”

That was, however, before the year I started out, on a spring date set by strict local custom, to grow peas in a steep terraced garden in the vineyards between Montreux and Vevey, on the Lake of Geneva.

The weather seemed perfect for planting by May Day, and I had the earth ready, the dry peas ready, the poles ready to set up. But Otto and Jules, my mentors, said NO so sternly that I promised to wait until May fifteenth, which could easily be labeled Pea-planting Day in Swiss almanacs. They were right, of course: we had a cold snap that would have blackened any sprout, about May tenth. As I remember, the moon, its rising, and a dash of hailstones came into the picture too…

And then on May fifteenth, a balmy sweet day if ever I saw one, my seeds went into the warm, welcoming earth, and I could agree with an old gardening manual which said understandingly, “Perhaps no vegetable is set out in greater expectancy…for the early planting fever is impatient.”

A week later I put in another row, and so on for a month, and they did as they were meant to, which is one of the most satisfying things that can possibly happen to a gardener, whether greenhorn and eager or professional and weatherworn.

Then came the day with stars on it: time for what my grandmother would have called “the first mess of peas.”

The house at Le Pâquis was still abuilding, shapes of rooms there but no roof, no windows, trestles everywhere on the wide terrace high above the lake, the ancient apple tree heavy laden with button-sized green fruit, plums coloring on the branches at the far end near the little meadow, set so surprisingly among the vineyards, that gave the place its name.

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