Peas and Prejudice

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To try Regina's recipe for a soup made with fresh peas and topped with crabmeat sautéed in butter and sherry, click here.

If you ask many Southerners what their favorite vegetable is, you might be shocked at some of the answers, such as "fried dill pickles" or "rice and gravy." I am certain our confusion in the South about the food pyramid has much to do with the ever popular "blue plate special" that always has a list of "vegetables" to choose two or three from. For years, rice and gravy, red beans and rice, and even fried pickles would be listed along with stewed okra and tomatoes, squash, black eye peas, lima beans, and green beans, all of course flavored with salt pork or bacon.

There are no racial barriers with the ever-popular lunch plate and choices. You can find a lunch with meat and a choice of vegetables all over town, from Dunleith Plantation with white linen tablecloths to Marsaw's lunch counter, which is considered our local soul food café, and, for many happy years, at the lunch counters at department stores in New Orleans. At all of these places the one vegetable we all look for in the spring is garden peas or English peas.

I have spent more than half my life unlearning many things that were imprinted into me at an early age. Not just nutrition, with the acceptance that starches are not considered vegetables in other parts of the world, but a few prejudices that came from being born in Mississippi, some good prejudices about our food and some prejudices that are not so benign. Now, do not get me wrong—Mississippi does not corner the market on prejudices. I have found them in California, Minnesota, and Paris, France. We have all held some kind of prejudice at some time in our lives and sadly, many were passed on to us before we had the ability to form our own beliefs. Somehow we all find a way to constantly improve our views of the people and the world around us.

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Jennifer Ward Barber/freshcrackedpepper.com

When I moved to Alaska from Mississippi, I was less than prepared for the world. My first two years of college, girls were not allowed to wear jeans on campus. As much as I objected to that, today I prefer skirts and dresses. I have to say, and proudly, I would have qualified then as a Southern belle. But living away from home for over 23 years, I have lost my original Southern accent. I was constantly asked to repeat myself, and with time it faded. I also find that because my generation has been exposed to the generic accent on television news, that our Southern accent fades more easily than with my parents' generation. Many of my mother's friends married and moved away during World War II, and no matter how far away they moved, they never lost their accent.

It took living in Alaska after college to open my eyes to how sheltered I had been. It took a while to take the three L's out of the pronunciation of Salmon ... always heard it as "Sallll-mon." Even worse than misconceptions about nutrition or mispronunciations are the more serious prejudices that are passed on at an early age. This is sad but true. At 23 years old I did not even know that the word "spic" was derogatory, and I have no memory of where I heard the word. This was not a word I heard often, maybe one or two times when I was young. I had heard the word used pertaining to people of Spanish descent, and I never knew it was an unkind word, as I never had a friend that was not white or black until I left the South. In the company of a State Senator and other people I admired I used that word about a person as if it were the word "Spanish." All it took was the look of absolute horror on the people's faces around me to remove that word forever from my vocabulary. Words, tastes, and pronunciations are imprinted whether we want them or not, but here's to hoping that more good is imprinted than bad.

Something good that is imprinted in me is the taste of spring garden peas and mint. This time of year I am not craving fried dill pickles (although they are quite fabulous)—I am craving my absolute favorite fresh English peas, or, as I remember calling them as a child, "garden peas." English peas are not like sugar snaps where you can eat the pod; after shelling, you toss the pods (unless you happen to be whipping up a vegetable stock) and keep the peas. Like all good peas and beans, they are absolutely worth the effort of shelling.

I love a chilled pea soup made with crème fraiche and a touch of mint on top. Even better is English pea soup with lump crabmeat that has been sautéed in butter and sherry. Peas are also great for a spring salad. When I mention fresh pea salad to many people they chime back, "Not that horrible one with cheese and mayonnaise." No, no ... we are talking spring, fresh, light. These sweet peas make the best salad with light mint vinaigrette over butter lettuce.

You know I would have to throw in at least one idea with bacon; some crisp bacon on top does not hurt the pea soup or salad. When you have fresh peas, bacon at some point is an absolute necessity. I know people have prejudices against the way Southerners love to cook with bacon, and we are prejudiced in favor of bacon. If I said crisp proscuitto, my guess is there would be less protest. That is fine with me, because I love all of the Italian dishes made with this sweet, spring jewel of a pea. Ironically, Marcella Hazan has a recipe in one of her books for shells with bacon, fresh peas, and ricotta cheese. She said she prefers the smoky taste of bacon in this particular dish. As every part of the country and some parts of the world have become more and more open to the diversity of food, let's hope we continue to be more and more open to the diversity of each other.

Here is my recipe for spring pea soup that you can top with mint or crabmeat with sherry. I just love the freshness and color of this soup for a spring menu.

Recipe: Spring Pea Soup

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Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of Regina's Table at Twin Oaks. More

Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of two cookbooks: A Collection of Seasonal Menus & Recipes from Regina's Kitchen and Regina's Table at Twin Oaks.
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