Sunday Dinner

Mushy peas -- so green, so British

CorrespondentAugust 31, 2013 


A man serves mushy peas on a traditional portion of fish and chips in Olley's fish restaurant in London, England.

OLI SCARFF — Getty Images

The Hub and I went to London recently to explore an obsession that’s not related to food: Shakespeare. Well, more so for me than Hub, who was promised visits to at least one pub a day in order to get him docilely onto the plane.

Of course, less than 24 hours after landing I was checking the hours for a nearby farmers market and locating a recommended Turkish restaurant. And I found “The Shakespeare Cookbook” in a University of London bookstore. True, you can take the gal out of the kitchen, but you can’t take the kitchen out of the gal.

According to the book by British food historians Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby, 16th and early 17th-century London was a food hot spot. It attracted exotic ingredients and wealthy fans of them the way New York draws top chefs today. The invention of the printing press allowed books to be more affordable, and many popular ones dealt with food and cooking, providing written records of what people ate and how they served it.

It was as true then as now that important things happen during meals, and Shakespeare’s plays are full of examples. Romeo first sees Juliet at the Capulets’ supper and masked ball. Banquo’s ghost unhinges Macbeth in front of his guests at a banquet. During a 1613 performance of a banquet scene in “Henry VIII,” the original Globe theater caught fire and burned to the ground. (But that wasn’t part of the script.)

The book mentions spiced wine, fritters using apples or crabapples, even “chaldron of swan” (a spit-roasted bird with a giblet sauce) as dishes seen at feasts for the wealthy.

Nowhere, however, does it say a word about mushy peas.

The grass-green side dish, which labors under one of the food world’s most unattractive but accurate titles, appeared next to each order of fish and chips we ate at pubs from London to Oxford.

Mushy peas are, well, mashed peas. Some versions leave a few peas whole for texture. Overall, I thought they were pretty good: Sweet, creamy and an actual green vegetable amid the fried items.

However, The Hub had two problems with mushy peas:

They were peas.

They were mashed peas.

The only way this dish could have placed farther down his hate list would have been if it was topped with lima beans and black-eyed peas.

I have been unable to dig up an answer to why mushy peas show up with fish and chips. But I did find out that purists believe they are not, and should never be, made with fresh little garden peas. That would be pea puree.

Mushy peas use dried marrowfat peas, which are green peas that are allowed to get large and then dried out for storage. According to a May article on fish and chips in the London publication The Guardian, which, when it’s not leaking classified documents, writes interesting food stories, the peas are soaked overnight with baking soda. The more baking soda you use, the mushier the peas will be. Then they’re simmered with butter until the preferred texture is achieved.

The end result, according to The Guardian, is “the cashmere textural comfort of freshly cooked, vibrant mushy peas.”

A reader who commented on The Guardian’s website had a different opinion, likening them to green paste.

Mushy peas may have deep roots in Britain for the same reason that many Southern foods are traditional – they sustained people during hard times. Dried peas were an important food source for the poor in Britain going back to the Middle Ages and a cheap source of protein, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food” by Alan Davidson.

One of my college roommates, a North Carolina native who has lived near Sheffield, England, for more than 20 years, said this: “Love mushy peas! We have them about once a week for a while, then have garden peas for a change.”

But when I mentioned mushy peas to the British clerk at my favorite supermarket, she made a face like a gargoyle and threatened to charge me double for my groceries.

It seems to me that mushy peas must be like the South’s okra. They’re both beloved and reviled, and deeply entangled in the region’s food history.

As the Bard himself might say: What food these mushy peas!

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