The Princess and the Pea


Lee Jordan/flickr

Unlike a lot of picky eaters, I wasn't often forced to eat foods I disliked as a child. My parents were fairly finicky themselves and therefore served us a limited range of comforting but less-than-adventurous foods. Occasionally, yes, I found myself ordered to choke down a pile of kidney beans I had surreptitiously separated from the rest of my chili. But for the most part, I happily ate what was placed in front of me.

Except for peas. How is it possible to hate peas?, you may ask. They're innocuous. They're tiny. By the time you bite into a pea, it's already gone. At its best, pea-lovers rhapsodize, the pea is springtime itself in a perfect green pearl.

We are not talking about the same vegetable. Like many people of my generation—and, apparently, the entire country of England—I grew up eating a lot of canned vegetables. My formative experience with peas was not of a fresh vegetable that popped with bright flavor but of a boiled, slightly-grey globule that dissolved under my fork into a puddle of goo.

I could just about make it through a helping of peas if I swallowed them whole with a big mouthful of milk. But if I bit down, it was all over. Slimy, gross green goo.

These canned monstrosities—which bore very little resemblance to the real thing—became my standard for how peas looked and tasted. That was particularly unfortunate because my grandparents grew English peas in their enormous garden and one of my grandma's signature dishes was a potato and pea salad. I have fond memories of sitting at their picnic table shelling peas for dinner, and I would have noticed that these peas were brighter and firmer than the ones that made me shudder. But there was no way I was going to eat that salad. I knew peas, and peas were not my friends.

So peas and I have been at a stand-off for most of my life. I may grudgingly include one or two on a forkful of spring vegetable risotto or let the spiciness of a vegetable biryani mask their taste. But in general they will end up shoved to the side of my plate by the end of a meal.

A few weeks ago, however, I was inspired to give peas a chance. I had called up Carla Hall, Top Chef season five finalist and Washington-area caterer, to get her advice about overcoming food aversions. Hall said it's important to figure out why you don't like a certain food in order to determine whether you can change your taste for it. "I think a lot of our dislikes—and this is why I try to revisit a lot of the foods I disliked as a child—have to do with who made them for us and how they prepared it," she explained.

Liver is one of those foods for Hall. "With liver, I know it's the texture I don't like. Maybe if someone used molecular gastronomy and made it crispy, I might like it," she suggested. "Or if they combined it with flavors I know I like." What Hall does love to eat are peas. Loves them. She's a pea proselytizer. And she swore that she could win me over with her pea pesto, which she uses as a spread inside grilled cheese sandwiches.

Now there was an idea. It was intimidating to think about plunging directly into a bowl of peas. But maybe I could gently reintroduce myself to peas by using dishes I already enjoy. I love grilled cheese—who doesn't?—and it could be the perfect gateway food.

It might also help to get as far away from the world of nasty canned vegetables as possible. On a weekend trip to central Virginia, I stopped at a local farm and purchased a big bag of freshly-picked spring peas. I also picked up some ears of corn for a creamy soup—because you can't have grilled cheese sandwiches without soup—and the first strawberries of the season for a strawberry-rose sorbet that would round out the meal.

Once home I spent an hour shelling the peas, enjoying the rhythm of the ritual and the absence of goo. I quickly blanched the peas and plunged them into ice water, admiring their bright green color. With a handful of mint from my back porch, a little garlic, toasted pine nuts, olive oil, and some good Parmigiano-Reggiano, I soon had a pea pesto. Add some fresh ciabatta and nutty Manchego, and it's time for grilled cheese!

My sister and husband both studied my face as I bit into the sandwich. They had already proclaimed the pea taste too mild. But they both already eat peas and clearly didn't grasp the point of this baby-steps approach. As for me, I could distinctly taste the sweetness of the pea pesto, which played nicely off the slight saltiness of the cheese. The whole effect was ... fine. Nothing earth-shattering.

A few days later, I tried again, using whole peas this time and gnocchi as my gateway food. As a good Irish girl, I will eat virtually any dish that involves potatoes. My love of potatoes has provided an entryway to any number of ethnic cuisines—samosas for Indian, Massaman curry for Thai, even goat stew in Africa. I stacked the deck some more by tossing in bacon for a lunch of pan-fried gnocchi with peas, onions, and bacon.

I was relieved to find that my first bite yielded not green goo but instead a slight crunch. The combination of pillowy-soft gnocchi with crisp bacon and firm peas allowed me to get past my texture issues and focus on the taste of the peas. Which is, again ... fine.

Not every long-standing food dislike has to suddenly become my favorite ingredient. The best I can say about peas is that I now find them unobjectionable. I can't imagine myself craving them anytime soon—although my sister insists that the right split pea soup will change my mind and I have yet to give snow peas a whirl. But I'll settle for not avoiding them from now on. Just keep those canned peas far away from me.