Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old.
Most of us remember the old nursery rhyme about pease porridge, but some of us actually wondered what they were talking about.
First of all, what is “pease”? Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s the correct way to spell “pea”—or at least it was at one time. Pease was Middle English for the legume, pise was Old English, and these, along with the plant’s scientific name, evolved from the Latin for pea, pisum. The newest version, pea, appeared in the early 1600s, an incorrect spelling of a word that just didn’t sound singular. However, pea is not alone among words in having been altered just because it sounded plural. Cherry is another one, as is pry and eave, and it looks like kudo is coming up strong as the latest addition to this group.
Pease porridge was just a slightly thicker version of what we now call pea soup. When made without meat, it could sit in the pot for several days without spoiling (though one should remember that, in the days when people were using the word pease, they didn’t have central heating, so “room temperature” could be fairly icebox-like in the winter, when dishes like this were prepared—no one would boil a pot for an hour in the summer). It was simply easier to cook a lot at once and enjoy leftovers for as long as they lasted. (And I’ve discovered that pease porridge actually improves over time, though I kept mine in a covered bowl in the refrigerator. It was still great after a week.)
The pea has been around pretty much from the start of eating. In fact, it’s so ancient, no one really knows where it originated, and its original ancestor, if it had one, appears to be extinct. The oldest find of peas at a site associated with humans dates to 9750 BC, in a cave on the border between Myanmar and Thailand. So it is hypothesized that peas might have come from somewhere in Asia, though peas prefer cooler weather, so even this early find might be of peas that were traded from elsewhere. Peas have been found at Stone Age sites in Hungary and Switzerland, at Bronze Age sites in Greece and France, and Iron Age sites in England. So wherever it started, the pea was on the move early.
Once we reach the periods for which we have written history, the pea appears frequently in documents about farming, food, and commerce. Hot pea soup was sold in the streets of Athens when Pericles was a youth. Peas were written of by the Roman gourmet Apicius, and records of Trajan’s market identified thirty-seven varieties available for sale in Rome.
We owe to Italy the tiny, lovely little green peas that are the sweetest and most delightful varieties of this legume. During the Renaissance, the Italians developed piselli novelli, or new peas, which were eaten unripe and fresh. Before this time, Europeans mostly ate dried peas.
It is not known when peas made it to England, but it was early on, as shown by the presence of peas at Iron Age sites. However, there was a sharp increase in interest in peas after the Norman Conquest of 1066, as French dining customs were introduced into England. Once they tried them, the Brits loved peas. They became so much a part of English culture that green peas are sometimes called English peas.
The French loved petit pois, too. And that great fancier of French food, Thomas Jefferson, adored peas, growing 30 varieties at Monticello. The pea was his favorite vegetable. Of course, as anyone who has tried some of the delightful, fresh, sweet varieties knows, there are miles between what most of us get in cans or freezer bags and those that come from a garden—so what Jefferson was enjoying was probably better than what you normally find on the side of your plate.
But, back in the days when peas were peases, dried peas were still the most common. A good pease porridge was a warming, wholesome, nutritious meal on a cold winter night—and it still is. I like my pease porridge warm, but it—s not bad cold. It reheats well, and this recipe is easily doubled, if you want to freeze some.
1 lb. green split peas
1 tsp. salt
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
Dash of ground cloves
½ tsp. marjoram
½ tsp. tarragon
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsp. butter
Wash and sort peas. Place peas, salt, and onion in a stew pot or large saucepan. Add water to cover by two inches. Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat one hour, adding water as necessary.
Add the marjoram, tarragon, and pepper, and cook over low heat for an hour or longer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. (Stirring becomes more important as you reach the end of cooking time.) Add water if porridge becomes a solid, but don’t add too much. You want it to be thick.
If serving to company, you might want to put soup through a food mill or give it a whirl in a food processor, to make it perfectly smooth. Otherwise, just stir in butter, serve, and enjoy.