Monday, June 9, 2014

An Edible Antique: Recreating A Jeffersonian Pea Contest

Chronica Domus
Readying the table for dinner with the first crop of heirloom Prince Albert peas
Photo: Chronica Domus

One of the things I discovered while touring Thomas Jefferson's gardens at Monticello, which I wrote about here, was that he was an enthusiastic grower and eater of peas.  In fact, peas were his favorite vegetable and he planted them repeatedly during his gardening years at Monticello between 1767 to 1824.  Jefferson dedicated three entire "squares" to growing peas, and grew an astonishing twenty-three varieties, seeds for which were purchased from his favorite seedsman Bernard McMahon.

What intrigued me most about Jefferson's love of peas was the story of the yearly pea contest in which he engaged with other gentlemen farmers of the area.  The winner was declared when a farmer produced the earliest crop of peas for the year.  The winner would then invite the other participants to share in a meal that would include, naturally, the winning peas.  George Divers, a friend of Jefferson's, was always the annual champion of the contest, a proud accomplishment indeed.  It is said that the year Thomas Jefferson produced the first pea, he was loath to reveal his victory so as not to hurt his friend's pride.

Chronica Domus
Pisum sativum "Prince Albert", an attractive heirloom pea seed packet purchased at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia
Photo: Chronica Domus

I think it would have been a great lark to have joined in on the fun of this competition if I had been a neighbor of Jefferson's (were there gentlewomen farmers in his day I wonder?).  So, when perusing the racks of seeds for sale at Monticello's gift shop, harvested from the gardens there, I naturally included a packet of English garden peas among my purchases.  I was excited to take these back to my small garden in California and see if I too could cultivate peas, an endeavor I had as yet to try.

Chronica Domus
The delicate white blossoms of the Prince Albert heirloom pea appear as white butterflies at rest
Photo: Chronica Domus

I chose an heirloom pea that is said to be indistinguishable from Pisum sativum "Early Frame", a variety that was grown at Monticello annually between 1809 and 1824.  The variety I selected, Pisum sativum "Prince Albert", was introduced to American gardeners from England in 1845 where it had been grown there for many years prior. 

Chronica Domus
Young peas on the vine photographed in May, 2014
Photo: Chronica Domus

I planted eighteen seeds on March 17 to mark St. Patrick's day.  These were, after all, green vegetables so what could be more appropriate.  The seeds were sown around two pyramidal-shaped structures that I made using branches pruned from the fruit trees in my garden, and a few pieces of twine to secure the tops.  Jefferson referred to these as "pea sticks" and they provide support for the young pea shoots and tendrils as they grow and scramble skyward.  All but one of the seeds germinated.  Half the seeds I planted were from the original seeds within the packet I bought back from Monticello in the summer of 2012. The other half were seeds I saved from the initial crop of peas I grew from those seeds last summer.  I was curious to discover if the fresher seeds I had saved would grow into stronger and taller plants, therefore producing more pea pods, than the seeds from the Monticello packet that were now three years old since being harvested.

Chronica Domus
The vines are now laden with plump peas ready for harvesting
Photo: Chronica Domus

On June 3, with assistance from my daughter, we excitedly picked the first harvest.  Our crop amounted to two hundred and fourteen plump little pea pods.  We were delighted with our little bounty.  There are several more pods remaining on the plants but those are not quite ready to be picked yet.  Also, many white flowers at the tops of the plants have yet to bloom so over the next month or so, if the bees and the butterflies cooperate, we can expect another, albeit smaller crop.  I noticed that both the newer seeds I harvested last year, and the original seeds I purchased, did equally well.  They both grew to the same height (around five and a half feet), and they both held as many pea pods as each other.

Chronica Domus
The first crop of heirloom Prince Albert peas harvested on June 3, 2014
Photo: Chronica Domus

And, what of the contest?  Well, I doubt very much I would have won the annual pea growing contest, even with the advantage of the milder climate I enjoy in California.  It took me exactly seventy-eight days from sowing my seeds to harvesting them.  An entry in one of Jefferson's gardening notebooks tells us that the "forwardest peas of February 20 come to table".  He wrote that on April 24, 1767, which meant his peas were ready to be eaten in sixty-three days, assuming as was very likely the case, that the peas were picked the same day they were consumed.  Clearly, this gentlewoman farmer is in no position to be hosting any winning feasts.

The peas after shelling 
Photo: Chronica Domus


Chronica Domus
A closer view of a perfectly formed, plump pea pod encasing six fat little peas
Photo: Chronica Domus

What I was able to do, however, was host my own dinner with a bowl of our heirloom peas as our side vegetable.  Of course, as Monticello tradition dictates, our dinner was eaten in the dining room around 4 p.m.  The peas were served from an old Paris porcelain vegetable bowl, and eaten from plates to match.  These pieces were all made during Jefferson's lifetime around the factories of Paris.  I chose them to honor the fact that Jefferson likely ate from similar porcelain tableware.  While stationed in France as Minister representing the United States, he became so enamored of French porcelain that he arranged for barrel loads to be shipped back to Monticello upon his departure from his post in Paris.  Within those barrels were held a staggering one hundred and twenty plates along with the other service pieces he selected. His granddaughter, Ellen Coolidge, noted that it was not unusual for Jefferson to have his plate changed several times during the course of his dinner.  Some of the surviving pieces of porcelain at Monticello are decorated with gilt bands and small springs of flowers.

It is indeed very satisfying to experience the same taste that Jefferson favored so much in his English peas.  Prince Albert is a very different pea from those to which we have become accustomed today.  Modern varieties are far sweeter than these heirlooms.  This heritage pea can best be described as starchier and more akin to beans than peas.  Delicious to be sure, when simply dressed with a good dollop of creamy butter, but an altogether different taste experience. 

Chronica Domus
Prince Albert peas come to table on June 4, 2014 ready to be devoured as part of our dinner
Photo: Chronica Domus

If you too are interested in growing heirloom peas, or even hosting your very own pea growing competition, Monticello now sells their seeds via their web site.  Of course, if you are as fortunate as I was and have an opportunity to visit the house and gardens in person, I believe you too will come away inspired and in awe of how well the man lived and gardened.  It is, indeed, a most fascinating look into his world.

I hope I've inspired you to try your hand at sowing a few seeds which may afford you the experience of sampling the earth born flavors of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century vegetables.

Nota bene: I am neither paid nor do I receive recompense in exchange for applauding products or services within my blog.  I do so because I enjoy them.  If you are a kindred spirit, you too enjoy recommending nice things to fellow good eggs.

16 comments:

  1. I have fond memories of shelling peas with my grandmother in preparation for vegetable soup. Apparently my grandfather had a saying that one must whistle while shelling peas (a tactic to prevent overconsumption).

    We might have a go at growing some. Alas, they won't be from Monticello. I ordered the spotted lettuce seeds you recommended but was thwarted by strict Australian border controls.

    Thank you for a lovely post on my favourite vegie (after spuds, of course).

    Spud.

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  2. Hello Spud,

    Why am I not surprised to hear of your thwarted efforts to import lettuce seeds from Monticello. Let's not forget I live in California which has very strict regulations on what one can bring into the state when it comes to food, fruits and vegetables. Have you tried the Diggers Club for heirloom seeds?

    Do give pea growing a try. I was very surprised at how well my seeds performed. Start them in the cooler months for success.

    I enjoyed reading about your pea shelling memories and your grandfather's words of wisdom.

    Perhaps I'll give potatoes a try next which will be something new for me.

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  3. I love anything that has to do with heirloom fruits and vegetables. Your photo perfectly illustrated the charming description of Louise Kent, who said that peas should be "picked when the sun is shining on them, and the pods hang like pieces of translucent jade in the warm green twilight of the vines."

    Some of the greatest rewards of growing and working with with these ancient varieties of peas are entirely separate from eating them.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim,

      What an absolutely charming quote describing the perfect moment to pick the near-bursting pea pods from their vines. Thank you. I very much enjoyed reading this. And yes, you are so very right. It is not solely about the feasting when growing these botanical antiques, rather the process of discovery along the way. One never quite knows what to expect at the end of it. I did learn one thing though. Many more plants are needed if one were to feed a family over several dinners. I have enough for another meal and that is it, I believe. I wonder if modern varieties produce more per plant than these oldies?

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  4. These look delicious, and you have shown such dedication to reproduce the scene by eating dinner at 4 pm! I think I would have to circumnavigate that piece of authenticity...or have a late lunch.

    Many great food items are grown here, but I don't think peas are one, so we make do with frozen, (Waitrose I think).

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    1. Hello Columnist,

      The only reason I can think of for eating dinner at 4 pm (back in Jefferson's day) is that they awoke much earlier to take advantage of the natural light in the days before electricity. I'm sure a hearty breakfast was served too, so lunch may have consisted of a few nibbles in preparation for the afternoon dinner that awaited.

      And, yes, frozen peas are very good for you as they are flash frozen as soon as they've been picked to preserve the nutrients.

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  5. Dear Chronica,
    Your peas look glorious and I'm sure Thomas Jefferson would have been thrilled to eat them. This blog by Orangette http://orangette.blogspot.com/ featured a recipe for chicken meatballs and peas in broth. If your plants are still producing, you might be interested in trying this.
    Karen

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  6. Hello Karen,

    Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you think the peas look glorious. It was certainly fun to eat them after fussing over them since sowing the seeds back in March.

    I am not familiar with the charming blog you write of so I'm off to take a better look now.

    Thank you, and come back again.

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  7. We have always planted our peas on March 17.
    What lovely pictures, and wonderful looking peas!

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    1. Hello Megs, and welcome!

      What a coincidence that you too plant your peas on St. Paddy's Day.

      I see you too are a blogger, and I see there is a marmalade jar in your last posting. I'm off to explore a little more. I do so love marmalade!

      Thank you for stopping by and I hope you come back often.

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    2. Thank you for stopping by my blog. I am sorry that I am not a very consistent blogger. I am much better at paper correspondence, believe it or not.
      I enjoy your blog, and that you are so consistent at it. I find all of your topics interesting.

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    3. Megs, thank you for your very kind comment. It is so nice to learn that my very amateurish efforts are being appreciated.

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  8. If I can convince my daughter to restart our vegetable garden, i might join you in the contest next year. She gave up after trying unsuccessfully for two years. Our yard in the back is slanted down and it is quite difficult to grow vegetables. We are now growing our tomatoes in tubs on the deck. Plus our weather is so hot and muggy...a pain to garden after May. But maybe I can talk her into it. I love fresh peas and these look fabulous.

    Wonderful post!

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    1. Hello Lindaraxa, it would be an absolute delight and a pleasure to have another gentlewoman gardener join in on the fun of a pea contest. Jefferson would, I imagine, be tickled pink at the prospect of being taken on by a pair of genteel female pea lovers. The secret is to start them as early as possible, late winter or early spring. I should heed my own advice next year and sow much earleir than March 17.

      Your garden sounds much like mine. We are located on a hill so I am very familiar with downward slopes. I've grown my veggies across, not down, and that has helped tremendously, and yes, I too have grown tomatoes in tubs out of practicality. They tasted delicious as I'm sure yours will too.

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  9. I am pea-green with envy! Beautiful photos to document your harvest and celebration. Congratulations. I look forward to getting our potager garden up and running to full potential. I am never sure how long exactly it take for things to grow, except potatoes: if you get you King Edwards in on Labour day (October 27 in NZ) they will be ready for Christmas!

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    1. Hello Lord Cowell, thank you so much for your lovely comment. I'm glad to learn that you enjoyed the documentation of our little harvest. I have a second batch that is just about ready to be picked.

      Oh, yes, I do so remember King Edwards, a potato that we do not have in California (it is all about Russets here). I've yet to try my hand at growing potatoes but perhaps I shall this autumn.

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