You would think the war over peas was about the Chinese peas my dad grew out on our farm. Not so. My mother heard Clarence Birdseye proclaim, “You must eat peas to be healthy” and she believed it with all her heart.

As in all wars, the beginnings are shrouded in mystery. what we kids always referred to as the “Olden Days” and which meant anything that had to do with our parents lives or maybe even what happened just an hour ago.

manuscript peas

Medieval Manuscript Illustration with Peas

She fed her boys strained peas when we were babies, that vile looking and tasteless, slimy  concoction spooned directly from a jar into our mouths like a mother bird feeding its chicks. Tiny babies are weak and helpless as we all know and we could have offered little resistance. Eat ’em or starve, it must have seemed easy to mom, her little boys growing healthy and strong before her eyes. Growing stronger yes; but smarter too, and in that fact lay the seeds of  her ultimate defeat.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first began to realize what was happening. I do recall the aftertaste being something like green latex paint with chalk dust added for flavor. Vile and disgusting doesn’t begin to describe it.

The origin of the pea is a mystery. The pea is a food plant so ancient that no one is sure, botanically or geographically, just where it came from. People have been eating peas for at least 10,000 years. Archaeologists have turned up the carbonized remains of pea feasts from Swiss lake dwellings and Neolithic farming villages in western Europe. According to Chinese legend, the pea was a find of the Emperor Shen Nung (the “Divine Farmer”), a helpful agricultural deity who also introduced the people to the hoe, the plow, the calendar, acupuncture, and tea. According to Norse legend, peas arrived as a punishment from the god Thor, who sent dragons toting peas to fill up the wells of recalcitrant worshippers. Later, once peas had caught on, Thor, when displeased, dispatched dwarves to plunder the pea fields. I think I’d have liked him.

In the medieval times, one of the staples of diet was dried pea soup, sometimes with resin added for flavor. Isn’t that a wonderful thought. Why just add some tree sap to make it sweeter. Perhaps that explains the fact the average Anglo Saxon of the time stood a scant five feet and weighed about 135 pounds. Forty was old, very old. Poor people could be so hungry they would waylay and murder travelers in order to have fresh meat. Imagine eating your neighbor because you couldn’t stand peas. When I was six, they might have had an ally. Fill a sock with dried peas and bonk ’em on the noggin.



Cooking the Pease porridge, 1156 Not happy

My mother was an oil field brat. She grew up during what was a constant state of financial depression. In 1915, my grandfather Bruce Hall went to work in the oilfields down in Casmalia. The pay was good for the time, about five dollars a day for an eight hour day. In the oil patch hours could be much longer and at about .67 cents an hour the pay was among the highest in the country but the work was itinerant, you might have to move at any time and oil companies in the heyday of discovery were going out of business almost as fast as they were created. Mom was born in 1918 and her life until 1943 when she married my dad, was spent on or near oil leases. The names of the places they lived are a litany of California’s oil history. Casmalia, Bakersfield, Taft, Coalinga, Maricopa, Summerland, Elwood, Signal Hill, Huntington Shores, Santa Barbara  and Arroyo Grande. The family staggered through the depression when mom was growing up and I’ll just bet you thats where she got her taste for peas. You could buy them by the 50 lb. bag. In the depression a sure indicator that the cost of living was increasing was the sudden demand for peas by the economically pinched who typically took refuge in that kind of food. In 1933, a hundredweight of dried peas cost $2.50 and baby, thats a lot of peas.

In 1928, the Gerber company held a contest to find a face to represent a baby food advertising campaign. Artist Dorothy Hope Smith entered her simple charcoal sketch of a tousle-haired, bright-eyed cherub of a baby. In her entry, Smith noted that she would finish the sketch if she won. Her drawing competed with elaborate oil paintings, but the judges fell in love with the baby face Smith drew, and when they chose it as the winner, they insisted that the simple illustration remain a sketch. The image of this happy, healthy baby was soon to become the face that launched a brand. My mother always said that I was a dead-ringer for that Gerber kid. She loved that.


Loved might not been the word I would choose. When I was old enough to refuse food, peas had the honor of being the first and the worst. Mom was very clever though and so really determined, she marshaled her forces . She had cans of peas in the cupboard, dried peas in the cabinets and frozen peas in the refrigerator freezer. First she tried just boiling them and putting them on your plate, even adding a pat of butter to perhaps entice you to eat them. She and dad used the old strategy of telling you “You can’t leave the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate.” The counter play’s for this are numerous. Self starvation means going to bed hungry, the old squish trick, mushing the food around in a vain attempt to make it look like you had eaten most of them which always works if your parents are blind, the drop, which is dropping a few peas at a time into your lap until dinner is over and the ever popular, hiding them in your napkin and asking to be excused to go to the bathroom and then dumping them down the toilet. My brother Jerry sat next to my little brother Cayce who would eat anything. He could slide his onto Cayce’s plate when no one was looking. No such luck for me, I sat next to my dad who loved my mother so much that he would have eaten anything my mother made. Anything, and I mean it too. She treasured him above diamonds for that. He deserved it.

Mom’s head on assault met with fierce resistance, her forces thrown back time and time again. So, as with any good general she tried a flanking attack. Understand, we were a farm family in which the menu was essentially an endless round of simple and comforting dishes. My mother was a good cook as most were in those times but she didn’t try gourmet foods or fancy dishes. I mean, come on, the French ate snails. My dad liked what he liked and that was it and we kids grew up thinking it was just fine with us.

One of our favorite dishes was creamed hamburger on home made biscuits of which my mother was the doyenne; par excellence as they say. My brother Jerry still eats, sixty years on, a homemade biscuit for breakfast almost every day. After months and years of frontal assaults she thought she would fool us by infiltrating a few peas into the the creamed hamburger in the hope we wouldn’t be able to detect her not so subtle attack. No dice, there they were, winking her defiance beneath the sea of flour and milk. After that first less than successful subterfuge she became a dog with a bone in its teeth. Casserole with peas, creamed peas, carrots and peas, mushy peas, peas and cauliflower, green beans vegetable casserole with peas, creamed peas with bacon and; and wait for it, wait, horror of horrors scrambled eggs with peas, surely the poison gas attack of meals. But like the stubborn Irish boys we were, descendants of a people who have been fighting the hated english almost continuously since May, 1159, we still wouldn’t eat ’em.

How did she ever expect to win? Eight centuries of mostly futile resistance breeds a certain stubbornness, or as my British friend Claire Mason said,”Whats wrong with you Irish anyway, why won’t you quit?” A well known Irishman, George Bush, famously banned broccoli from Air Force One, explaining, “I do not like broccoli… And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!” We felt the same way about peas.

Peace was never achieved, nor I suppose was it possible. A boys delight in putting one over on his parents is sublime. Actually, we were taught to think for ourselves at that table. It was a constant refrain, my dad would always tell us not to believe half of what we saw and believe little we read in the newspaper and  certainly nothing we saw on television. It’s turned out to be good advice.

Still don’t like peas and you can’t make me eat them; ever.


PS:    Drawn by Dorothy Hope Smith, the Gerber baby was introduced in 1928 and has become the internationally recognized face of the company. The model for the original sketch, is Ann Turner Cook,  a mystery novelist and english teacher. The symbol has one of the highest levels of loyalty in branding history. Mrs. Cook lives in Florida.










Somewhere back of beyond, lies the Typhoid Pond. My brother Jerry, Kenny Talley and I discovered it in 1955 while on quest of imagination.

pond scum tank

One hot July afternoon we headed up a canyon on the Dunavan place. Once part of the old Rancho Santa Manuela it was still a cattle ranch in the 50’s. In July the hills and valleys were sere, the chapparal crackling and dusty, the pasturelands eaten down to stubble and the earth ankle deep in powder as light as talcum.

Preparing for a momentous journey, as always, called for careful preparation. High top tennis shoes were a must and since tennis shoes were the shoe of choice for summer, the only choice because thats all we had.  Worn denim pants and white tee shirts rounded  out our farm boy sartorial elegance and since farm kids wore the same clothes every day but Sunday it wasn’t really much of a choice.

Most carefully chosen items were the single surplus WWII canteen we took and above all the choice of weapons. At the entrance to the nameless canyon was Oliver’s enormous stack of bean poles. In those days, the Blue Lake and Kentucky Wonder beans were trained on redwood or eucalyptus  poles, wired and strung with cotton twine. In season, a field with bean poles strung was a wonder to behold. A gigantic tapestry that shimmered with moisture in the early morning fog. A seemingly endless manmade spider web of bleached white string against the brilliant dark green of the vines reaching upward, embracing the twine in its fragile tendrils.

Choosing the proper pole was of the utmost importance for it must serve as a walking stick, rifle, spear, bow and sword. First of all it must be a broken one for we were boys still and incapable of swinging an eight foot bean pole. Usually there was a smaller pile of broken ones, haphazardly stacked with different lengths of both primary types. The redwood poles were the older more expensive ones, and mixed in, eucalyptus poles cut from the old trees on the mesa. The lighter redwood were easier to handle and drive, but you needed to have a pair of gloves to protect your hands for they were filthy with nasty splinters, sure to break-off under your skin, the splinters nearly impossible to remove, even with tweezers. You had to be patient and let them fester until you could squeeze them out. The squeeze was satisfying but the several days of irritation were not. It was a sort of no pain no gain situation. The eucalyptus on the other hand weren’t particularly straight, heavier and liable to break when pulling them out at the end of the growing season. My dad liked the geometry of the redwood. When strung they  made a satisfying tableau, a state of completeness more like a finished painting than a simple field. The crooked eucalyptus was wilder looking, not as finished and didn’t fit his view of how his fields should look. If you farmed, he was going to judge you by how straight your furrows were; crooked furrows and his estimation of your skill went down. A small conceit from a man hadn’t a self-serving bone in his body.

We invariably chose the Euc. They were heavier but easy on the skin and they had the heft to do the job.

So armed with the necessities, water, a weapon and most important, limitless imagination we set off up the valley, immediately jumping down into the dry wash that bisected the  canyon.  Walking along, we were sure to remind ourselves to be quiet and stealthy, occasionally lying against the walls of the wash and lifting our heads, lizard like, in order to see any danger approaching along the canyon floor. Sometimes crouching with our muskets raised, pans primed and locks cocked for the redcoats to march close enough for the first volley. The whites of their eyes clearly visible on the downslope of Breed’s Hill, The Royal Welch Fusiliers, the same regiment of the line that later produced two of the greatest poets of WWI, Sigfreid Sassoon and Robert Graves. We held off them until we ran out of ammunition and then fled around imaginations bend.


The Patriots, Breeds Hill, June 17, 1775

In the distance we could see the Comanche chief Quanah Parker at the crest of a low hill.We were 3, they, 700. There was never a more splendidly barbaric sight. We were about to be in one of the last great fights of the indian wars. Hundreds of warriors, the flower of the fighting men of the southwestern Plains tribes, The greatest light cavalry the world has ever seen, mounted upon their finest ponies, armed with rifles and lances, and carrying heavy shields of thick buffalo hide, were coming on like the wind. Over all was splashed the rich colors of yellow, black, vermillion and ochre. Painted on the bodies of the men and  their running horses they told stories of courage and dreams. Scalps dangled from bridles, gorgeous war-bonnets fluttered their plumes, bright feathers dangled from the tails and manes of the horses, and the bronzed, halfnaked bodies of the riders glittered with ornaments of silver and brass. Behind this headlong charging host stretched the Plains, over whose horizon the rising sun was lifting.  The warriors seemed to emerge from this glowing background, tearing apart the mist in their headlong rush towards the old adobes. I had my friend Bat Masterson on the  left and the famous rifle shot William “Billy” Dixon on my right.  On the third day of the fight, Billy Dixon, already renowned as a crack shot, took aim with a “Big Fifty” Sharps  buffalo rifle  and cleanly dropped a warrior from atop his horse nearly a mile away. Discouraged by this amazing event the warriors melted away.

Chief Quanah Parker and Billy Dixon

As we crept away from the walls we looked to the left and saw at a distance the 7th riding towards their fate, equipment jingling, dirty blue shirts and dusty boots, an Irish trooper playing “I’ll take you home again Kathleen” on his mouth harp, perhaps it was Trooper James Patrick Boyle, just 23, a county Tyrone boy born in the green pastures of Ireland and destined to lay his bones by the Greasy Grass.  Farther up the draw, just seen at a distance, a wagon train bound for the California gold fields around Roaring Camp, perhaps to meet Bret Harte’s Thomas Luck.

Almost completely hidden in a small hole dug in the side of the gully was Sgt. Franklin “Frank”Rock and some of his men from Easy Company quietly watching for an appearance of any “Natsie scum.” We were glad of their company.

Suddenly from the right a ferocious roar. Ronin! Kenny shouts and we turn just in time to meet the charge of the purple hatted, knife wielding whirlwind. Each warrior seemingly armed with dozens of knives, each one more pointy than the next. Swirling like dervishes we meet them head on, our eucalyptus blades carving, their purple capped heads separated from their stalk-like shoulders bouncing across the prairie. In a few blinding, confusing moments they are vanquished, their mutilated bodies littering the ground around us. In triumph, exhausted by our labors we jump back down into the ditch, gasping, dusty and thirsty.purplethistle

California thistle, Circium Occidentale Californicum

Slowly cresting the head of the draw we spy a sight for sore eyes. In the near distance a cattle tank, a depression filled with rain water runoff, shallow in the summer, soon to be a mudflat but nevertheless inviting to tired, dirty explorers. Approaching along the mudflats, the surface a mosaic of earthen tiles each slightly cupped, covering the wet mud beneath, we removed our sneakers and socks and approached the edge of the pond the mud already beginning to squish between our toes, an experience, satisfying in the extreme to those with tired feet. Deciding that a swim was the answer we each stripped down to our shorts and began wading out into the water, brushing aside the green surface growth. The long tendrils of Spyrogyra clutching at us as we pushed aside the moss and algae. Clearing enough of the surface growth to submerge we slowly sank. We croaked like frogs and splashed each other in a riot of noise, laughing and throwing slimy mud, we soon looked like mudmen crowned with green hairpieces. Finally, rinsing ourselves and pulling the moss out of our hair we waded back to where we left our clothes. Pulling socks on over muddy feet and slipping on our shirts and pants we began to retrace our steps.


The Route to the Typhoid Pond on the far right

Suddenly, in the distance we could hear the whistle blowing, we must get to the steamboat in a hurry, before she left the dock. She was headed down river from Cairo, bound for New Orleans, Sam the pilot standing on the Texas deck, splendid in his long frock coat and string tie, his arms akimbo, his hat cocked atop his head and a crooked cheroot gripped between his grinning teeth. A real river pilot, a prince of the river.

on the river

“Yonder she comes”  Life on the Mississippi,  Mark Twain, 1883

We raced across the pasture pell mell until we spied the steamboat which looked suspiciously like my dads green chevy pickup. “What have you boys been up to, he said, you look like something the cat dragged in. Lets get you home and into the tub and you can tell me all about it.”