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.
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.