Mendelian Hogwash: A Q&A with the English Pea
It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down and had a nice chat with one of my plant acquaintances, so I reached across the pond this month to have a prototypically etymological conversation with the English pea, who frankly did a fine job of shining a bright light on the messiness of our human addiction to partitioning all things genetic, linguistic, geographical, and beyond. Those East India Company-era English academics really did a number on our worldview, huh? Anyway, we’re not here to hear me wax into eternity, let’s let the English pea have a word, shall we?
I have an endless fascination with plant names. I really wish I could get past it but your origin stories truly interest me. So, first things first: Why “English” pea?
Frankly, chap, I haven’t the foggiest notion where my name comes from. As far as anybody can tell, me and me genetic mates all come from the Mediterranean and have been cultivated for food for just about as long as cultivating food has been in fashion. The English have been claiming everything they can get their bloody hands on as their own for almost that long too though, innit?
Well, I don’t think the English empire has been around all that long. But, I get you.
And then we got all mixed up in that Mendelian hogwash. That man was right brilliant and the role we played in discerning genetic inheritance is one we shall forever remain proud of. But then those filthy eugenicists used his sound scientific findings to justify just about every horrific injustice you human lot inflicted on one another for the next hundred years or so. Of this, we peas are not so proud.
Would you like to explain the genetic experiments Mendel performed on you?
I would not. If you haven’t learned about us peas and Mendel and the sexy science he worked on us, then your human education system has failed you miserably and you deserve whatever misguided apocalyptic fate befalls you. Not you in particular, mind you, just you humans. And I suppose we may follow suit should such a fate befall you, given that we depend on you for our breeding, or for our propensity at the very least. So. Please. Read a textbook. For the lot of us.
There kind of are a lot of you, aren’t there?
My dear, there is an infinite world of leguminous plants out there, but if you are speaking of us peas, us Pisum sativum proper, yes, even still, we are legion.
Well, legion might be a little extreme—
Legion. Firstly there is me, the most lauded of the bunch if I may say so myself. The English pea. Not to be eaten with the pod. Also known as the sweet pea to the chagrin of certain flower growers. Also known as just the pea. I am that pea. The pea of your frozen vegetable aisles, of your canned pantry reserves. And then there is the snow pea, meant to be harvested before the seeds within round out, eaten flat, fresh, or otherwise. Then we have the snap pea, which is delicious of both pod and seed, edible through and through, sweet, nutritious, fibrous, wholesome, but unfortunately ignored by much of the pea-eating community. Speaking of the pea-eating community, the lot of them often forget that the strings need to be removed from our sides before we can be eaten. The human body does not love the sensation of that string in their mouths.
This is an important reminder. I have often forgotten to remove the strings. So, you have only mentioned three of your kind. Are there more? In your legion?
Within those types of peas, there are endless varieties of us out there. Different gradients of sweetness, harvestability, colors ranging from yellow to purple to white to green, and a few places in between. You people have really brought more out of us than our ancestors ever imagined possible.
You had alluded to being known as a sweet pea but that being an issue for flower people? What’s going on there?
You really are obsessed with our silly little names aren’t you? I reckon the lot of you are, what with your subdivisions of subdivisions and genuses and subgenera and what all. Yes. There is a poisonous legume that looks somewhat like a pea, that grows like us and puts out flowers like ours, but prettier, in pinks and purples and the like. And it smells sweet. So. Sweet pea. But it is toxic, through and through. It’ll right paralyze you, mate. Do not eat it. Do not eat any part of it.
Ah. But can we eat all of you?
Every last nibble, mate. Except those silly strings of course. Our flowers are a wonderful treat to make a salad properly pop. And pea shoots, that is to say new growth at the end of our vines, are a delicacy adored by the culinary masters of your universe. They look a prize alongside a fancy steak, curls abound and all, and they taste great all along the way as well. No need to wait for us to put out full grown fruits for you to devour, we have alimentary blessings to bestow upon you from first blush to final fruit.
How best to make you blush?
Oh but you already have.
Oops. I mean how do you grow? Or what can we do to make you grow best?
Right. Well. First things first. I’m a climber. If you haven’t something for me to grow up onto, I will falter fast. We are delicate vines, the lot of us, so it is not as if we need wrought iron to hold us up as we reach out skinny tendrils up to the heavens, but a simple stick in the ground will likely not suffice. Given the opportunity we will grow six feet tall easily, but can live with less height if your options are limited as our caretaker. Just so long as our vines are off the ground, we will be fine.
And is there an ideal time to grow you?
We are a temperate kind. All things in moderation. There is a reason we could travel from the easy heat of the Mediterranean to the blustery gloom of England. Though we cannot grow everywhere all the time, we can grow almost everywhere sometimes. In a colder clime, our happy place resides in spring; in a warmer place, plant us in the fall. It is that simple. We want the spaces in the middle.
And location wise? What makes sense?
Well, we have already talked about trellises. Other than that, use us for what we are good for. We are legumes, and as such nitrogen fixers, and therefore beneficial to your soil, and thusly should be planted where other vegetables have depleted your soil of its nitrogen. Use us in the spaces between, to make your other veggie mates stronger. We are here to help, do not deny us.
illustrations by Rachel Speck