May Peas: Going Back to Someone Else’s Roots

When I think of shelling peas, I always experience a sweeping, Southern daydream that makes me feel a bit like an impostor:  the practice feels like it should be done on a porch, barefoot, a basket between my knees, and a bowl at my feet. I’ll wear a dress, naturally, and the heat will be decreasing as the sun goes down (as it naturally would in this fantasy). I would drink sweet tea and enjoy the buzzing of cicadas. I would be living on a farm with a chicken coop out back and fresh sweet corn growing on stalks in the distance. I would frequently wear aprons. In this scenario, I am something between a Southern belle, a Victorian novel heroine, and myself.

May peas!

Or, there’s the reality. Me, at my kitchen table, texting my girlfriend in between snapping batches of May peas, the pods cold and wet between my fingers because, in my haste to start using them, I rinsed them first, not thinking about the fact that rinsing was unnecessary. My roommate cooks chicken in the kitchen behind me, and I work methodically, snapping the end off the pod, dragging the string along the seam, then prying the whole thing open to reveal neat little rows of peas, which I remove with my thumb, sweeping down the inside of the pod in one fluid motion, the peas (mostly) landing in a bowl below, before discarding the pod into the collander before me. Every so often, a pea shoots off onto the floor around me, and as each one does, I call out the number to my roommate. I ended with five. That seems respectable.

I believe that cooking, especially with seasonal produce, is an interesting endeavor because it takes us back to a time before grocery stores and big box food operations. It takes us back to a time when, if you wanted peas, you bought a bag of peas in the pod, or grew them yourself, and you shelled them. Baking bread achieves the same nostalgic quality:  instead of opening a bag and fiddling with a twist tie, you wait for yeast to proof like a lagoon creature in the water, and then you add oil and salt and flour, flour, flour, stirring and kneading, working on achieving Michelle Obama arms.

The thing is, I never shelled peas as a child. I grew up in the suburbs outside of Atlanta, and when we had peas, they came from a can and were heated up with butter and salt. My mom is not a fan of peas, but the rest of the family was, so it became one of the vegetables that most everyone (at least all the kids) would eat. It’s easier that way. Who has time to do everything from scratch?

Last night, I made bread, fried up shrimp (that I peeled and deveined – yuck! – all by myself, thank you), and cooked my freshly shelled May peas. I spent four hours making dinner. Four hours! I was exhausted at the end. Gratified and happy with the results, but exhausted! Part of the reason it took so long was because I’m new at de-veining shrimp, and partly because bread takes forever with its risings and kneadings. But the thing is, for a family to live that way, I would think one person would have to be at home cooking all day. That’s not a reality I grew up with. Hence the reason my opening paragraph above is strictly an amber-tinted dusty Southern daydream, set to the score of Gone with the Wind.

Shelling peas takes me back to someone else’s roots. That’s not my history, but it’s one that I feel happy to sample. I’d much rather have fresh, in-season vegetables, and that requires a little more work. Sometimes I have time for it, and sometimes I don’t. But I enjoy dabbling in it, in getting my hands dirty, in visiting farmer’s markets and collecting recipes from friends; I enjoy eating things that came directly out of the ground. And even though I suffer from a little bit of impostor syndrome – it feels Southern, but not my kind of Southern – I enjoy appropriating these traditions, making them mine, finding ways to blend the old ways with the new.

With my May peas, I made Fresh Peas with Mint and Green Onions, though I modified where needed. I didn’t have green onions or chives, but I did have spring onions from my CSA bundles, so I used those. I used fresh mint from the herb garden (thank goodness – that mint bush is running wild). And I used peas I shelled with my own two hands, which I have to say, gave me a pride in ownership over the dish that I might not have otherwise felt.

Fresh peas with spring onions and mint

Fresh Peas with Mint and Spring Onions

2 cups fresh green peas (not sure how many I had, actually, but guessing about two cups)

2 spring onions, the bulb part only, halved and sliced thin

6 mint leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon butter

Salt to taste

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add peas, and boil, stirring occasionally, until the peas are tender, 3-4 minutes. Empty into strainer and drain well, then transfer to medium bowl.

2. Add butter, onions, and mint to bowl, mixing to coat peas. Add salt to taste, and serve warm.


This isn’t the first time I’ve written about May Peas

CSAcation:  dana vs may peas (and her empty apartment)

8 thoughts on “May Peas: Going Back to Someone Else’s Roots

  1. You’re bringing back memories for me. I grew up on a farm in Eastern Washington and we had to shell peas every summer because my mom insisted on canning and freezing everything she could. It was horrid- 110 degrees, dusty and it seemed like it would never end. My hands ached by the end of the day, but my mom bent all the rules on days like that and we ate something easy for dinner that she would never otherwise make, like Kraft Mac and Cheese from a box. Hard to believe, but she cooked everything from stratch, so it was a treat. Peas, green beans, peaches, grape juice, asparagus, broccoli, you name it, we prepped it for her. Corn was the worst veggie – first you have to shuck it and get all the tassels off, then someone has to slice the corn off the cob, which is a messy, sticky job. I miss the amazing fresh produce, but I still rejoice when I pull something out of the freezer that I didn’t have to process.

    1. What a lovely memory, Donna! I can imagine that would have altered your perspective, and definitely would have made Kraft mac & cheese a treat! 🙂
      I love that there are resources available nowadays, like farm markets and CSAs, that make local, seasonal produce available, and that give people who grew up in suburban or metropolitan areas a chance to really engage with their food in a hands-on way. I find a lot of enjoyment in it, even when it becomes tedious and tiresome and I keep losing peas as they fly onto the floor.
      I’m so glad this post brought back memories for you of your days on the farm. Thank you for telling your story and for reading! 🙂

      1. I couldn’t agree more about farm markets and CSAs- I hope more people start taking advantage of them and discover what food is supposed to taste like.

  2. Butter beans were more the thing down where my family is from. My Yankee-bred wife doesn’t understand. She also doesn’t get black-eyed peas. But she likes grits, so I’m on the right track, I think.

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