Potted history of the pea

In a series of experiments in the Seventies, scientists exploring the human mind asked groups of American students to name a typical vegetable. With startling consistency, they picked the pea.

In the 8,000 years or more that we have been cultivating and eating peas (Heinrich Schliemann dug up a jar containing 440 pounds of still-edible peas in the ruins of Troy), they have clearly weedled their way into our consciousness.

These tender green seeds are scattered throughout Indo-European languages. The Greek "pison", the Latin "pisa", the French "pois", the Italian "pisello" - not to mention the Old Irish "piss" - all derive from some unknown ancestor, probably of Aegean origin.

In Old English, the word for pea was "pise", and the later form, "pease", lives on in pease pudding. But in the 17th century, people got it into their heads that "pease" was plural, and so the modern singular "pea" was invented, quite unnecessarily.

Peas mysteriously vanished from Britain during the Dark Ages, only to be reintroduced during the reign of Henry VIII. By 1600, four varieties were growing here, including an early mangetout, described by one writer as "pease without skins in the cods".

It was the Englishman Thomas Andrew Knight who, in 1787, used peas in some of the first genetic experiments. He wanted to find out how characteristics are inherited so he could improve his cider apples, and peas proved to be ideal subjects for study.

Seventy years later, Gregor Mendel agreed. Noting whether they were smooth or wrinkled, green or brown, he used peas to unravel the fundamental laws of genetics.

Peas have always been at the forefront of food processing. Available in their fresh form only for a limited period, they are easily dried for year-round consumption, either whole or split, reconstituted in soups or dahls, or ground into flour.

With the advent of canning in the late 19th century, a third option became available. But when, in the 1920s, an American inventor called Clarence Birdseye began to experiment with the quick freezing of food, the pea was set to become the world's favourite vegetable.

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