“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”
– Thomas Jefferson 
Peas have been grown and eaten for thousands of years, and is said to originate from Thailand and Burma, the Middle East, and Ethiopia. Peas were then spread throughout Europe most likely when the Roman Empire covered that territory. Peas were an essential vegetable in the Middle ages because dried peas could be stored and eaten throughout the winter when other foods were scarce.
Did you know? That peas take so well to freezing that only about 5% of the Nation’s pea crop is currently sold fresh. Most of the pea crop is sold, canned, frozen or dried. This fact also makes peas one of the easiest vegetables to buy.
Columbus planted peas in the Americas in 1842, and soon after they were cultivated by the Native Americans and European colonists.
While heirloom varieties of peas have been around for centuries, sugar snap peas were actually developed in the 60s by Calvin Lamborn. He crossed shelling pea with snow peas [also called sugar peas] in order to create a sweet pea with an edible pod. Read more about his work at eatmorepeas.com
Fun Fact: edible pods have fibers that go in only one direction, allowing them to be easily chewed.
Thomas Jefferson planted more than 30 varieties of peas in his garden and reportedly competed in friendly annual “pea competition” with his neighbors. In fact, “according to family accounts, every spring Jefferson competed with local gentleman gardeners to bring the first pea to the table; the winner then hosting a community dinner that included a feast on the winning dish of peas.” –Peter Hatch
One would think that Jefferson typically won these friendly competitions, given his vast mountaintop garden with southern exposure. However, it was a wealthy neighbor named George Divers who typically won.
Of all the peas Jefferson planted he was particularly fond of the English Pea, of which he grew 15 different types. Jefferson also took the time to stagger the planting of the peas so that he could eat them fresh from may to july.
Low in fat and calories, peas are also a good source of protein. In fact 100-calorie serving of peas [about ¾ of a cup] contains more protein than a whole egg or a table spoon of peanut butter.
Eating Sugar Snap Peas.
There are three simple rules to eating the best sugar snap peas possible.
1. Eat them fresh.
2. Keep them cold [It is essential to keep the peas cold because that slows the peas sugar conversion to starch.]
3. Eat them soon.
Back in Jefferson’s day peas were typically boiled fresh or frozen. See the recipes below [taken from the 1842 Virginia Housewife cookbook, by Mary Randolph] for an idea of how these tiny morsels were prepared.
“to have them in perfection, they must be quite young, gathered early in the morning, kept in a cool place, and not shelled until they are to be dressed; put salt in the water, and when it boils, put in the peas; boil them quick twenty or thirty minutes, according to their age; just before they are taken up, add a little mint chopped very fine; drain all the water from the peas, put in a bit of butter, and serve them quite hot.” Page 105
When referencing lima or sugar beans the book says,
“These beans are easily preserved for winter use, and will be nearly as good as fresh ones. Gather them on a dry day, when full grown, but quite young: have a clean and dry keg, sprinkle some salt in the bottom, put in a layer of pods, containing the beans, then a little salt – do this till the keg is full; lay a board on with a weight, to press them down; cover the keg very close, and keep it in a dry, cool place…When used, the pods must be washed, and laid in fresh water al night; shell them next day, and keep them in water till you are going to boil them; when tender, serve them up with melted butter in a boat.” page 107
The Food Heritage Project thanks you for taking the time to read about the history and heritage of sugar snap peas and asks you to consider eating these tiny pods this spring!
This post was written by Abigail Sandberg
1. Jefferson, Thomas. Garden Book, 1766-1824 [electronic edition]. Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003.http://www.masshist.org/thomasjeffersonpapers/garden/.
2. Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book : with Commentary and Relevant Extracts from Other Writings, edited by Edwin Morris Betts. [Charlottesville]: University Press of Virginia, 1976, reprint of Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 35. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953
3. Baron, Robert C. editor. The Garden and Farm Books of Thomas Jefferson. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 1987
4. Hatch, Peter. “Thomas Jefferson’s Favorite Vegetables.” Twinleaf Journal Online, 2000. Available on Monticello’s website: http://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/thomas-jeffersons-favorite-vegetables.
5. Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, Published by E.H. Butler & Co., 1860, Philadelphia.