Once every June “the day with stars on it” arrives, as M.F.K. Fisher once wrote: It is the day I have “the first mess of peas”. A friend from a farm delivers them, and I find myself, though busy with a million things, stopping to sit on the terrace at twilight and shuck them. It is a peaceful, old-fashioned pleasure, shared sometimes with friends (which makes it go faster), and sometimes done alone, which makes it into a reflective time. Thinking to write about it, I found myself searching online for a poem about shelling peas and came upon my own writing, published in Improvised Life two years ago; it seems shelling the first summer peas has become an inbuilt ritual over the years, part of my internal clock.
Then I remembered Fisher’s unparalleled writing about the pleasures of peas in P is for Peas, which I first read as a young cook in my mother’s tattered copy of The Art of Eating. The excerpt, below, describes all that I love about peas, and the shucking that is somehow part of their deliciousness. (You can read the whole piece here.)
Gathering enough shelled peas for a bowl-full is like having a treasure hoard. I steam them for barely 2 or 3 minutes, and toss them with farm butter, salt and pepper. Then I eat them with a spoon, watching the sky streaked with pink.
Peas are in local farmer’s markets now. I advise buying a big bag and planning a dinner around shelling them, perhaps with a cocktail. Feature them as a course unto themselves, even they only yield a few mouthfuls. The new green of summer will reverberate.
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.
…the thing that really mattered, that piped the high, unforgettable tune of perfection, was the peas, which came from their hot pot onto our thick china plates in a cloud, a kind of miasma, of everything that anyone could ever want from them, even in a dream. I thought three basic requisites, according to Fannie Farmer and Escoffier…and again I thought of Sydney Smith, who once said that his idea of heaven (and a cleric!) was pâté de foie gras to he sound of trumpets. Mine, that night and this night, too, is fresh green garden peas…
Like Fisher, my idea of heaven is a bowl of fresh green peas with butter…
…although, if you REALLY don’t want to shell peas, blistering them in an iron skillet and pulling the peas out of the pods with your teeth is a fine way to go.