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.

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

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.

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

P is for Peas 

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.

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3 replies on “Eating Peas with M.F.K. Fisher

  1. My friend, food history and cookbook doyenne, Cindy Bertelsen, sent me this marvelous piece as a surprise to celebrate tomorrow’s birthday (3 July) of my darling friend, Mary Frances Fisher. Your essay makes me so happy. I miss MF so much; it is so nice to see new pieces written about her and the lasting and lovely effect she and her work have had on folks. Let’s raise a glass to her memory this weekend! And thanks so very much for this wonderful piece of writing. I think I will read her “P is for Peas” in An Alphabet for Gourmets” !!

  2. I am so very touched by your note, and envious that you knew M.F.K. Fisher. Her writing, and way, have resonated so strongly through my life, I almost feel like she is a friend. (And it is indeed curious that she came to mind just on the eve of her birthday.)
    It is because of her writing about “dining alone” that I challenged myself to do just that while traveling through alone through France in my twenties, a memorable and transformative experience. Nobody has written more acutely of the many kinds of hunger we beings express…
    I join you in raising a glass to her memory!

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