March 3, 2011

Cook the Peas, Please


From a piece I wrote for my journalism class... 

You might not know it, but there’s a controversy going on right now. And it’s not the type that concerns gay marriage or U.S. foreign policy or the validity of Obama’s birth certificate. It has nothing to do with the supremacy of the Yankees over the Red Sox or whether Lindsay Lohan’s jail sentence was too harsh. It doesn’t even concern Sarah Palin.
No, it’s not about any of those things. It’s about peas, and how they should be cooked.
In the food world, the “right” way to prepare a certain ingredient – whether it is steak or tomatoes or chocolate sauce – is constantly being revised according to the trends of the time. How do we maximize the flavor? How were they “meant” to be prepared? How do Italian grandmothers make them? Today, there is a debate simmering about the proper way to cook peas.
Conventional wisdom dictates that peas – fresh from the garden, plucked off the grocery store shelf or pulled out of the freezer – should only be cooked until they are warm.  Any more and we’ll start having nightmares of the mushy peas grandma always used to force us to eat. But the truth of the matter is, grandma may have been onto something. 
“Controversially,” says Francis Lam, the senior food writer at Salon, “I also love them with the hell cooked out of them, when they deform into wrinkle-skinned beads, but take on a wonderfully savory, creamy character.”
It’s true that cooking garden fresh peas, just minutes off the plant, only requires a few seconds of cooking. That way, their sweet, fresh flavor stays in tact. But unless you have a garden out your back door, the peas’ sugar quickly converts into starch. Once this happens, they need to be more thoroughly cooked to reach their peak flavor.
“The stereotype about peas,” notes Matthew Amster-Burton on the Podcast Spilled Milk, “is you take ‘em and you cook ‘em for maybe about twelve seconds.”
 But as Francis Lam responds on the same episode of Spilled Milk, “If you cook the damn thing for an appropriate amount of time, it becomes amazing.”
Convincing the world that his pea philosophy is true will be another matter all together for Lam. He offers a few recipes on his blog, including “cumin-ginger stewed peas,” to try and get the adventurous home cook to give his theory a shot. But how many people are willing to cook their peas for that long remains to be seen.  People have strong feelings about how to prepare certain foods, particularly ones they were fed as small children.
“I thought you just warmed them up,” says a junior at Wesleyan University, “What else is there to do?”
As Francis Lam would like us to believe, apparently a whole lot more. The small, less-than-bite-sized pea is a bit more controversial than it might first appear.  Then again, just about any food can and will be argued over. It’s just the nature of the world of food, particularly one in which anyone can instantly broadcast their foodie-opinions online with the click of a button.
Undoubtedly, “the great controversy of how to cook an English pea,” as Molly Wizenberg of Spilled Milk describes it, will continue to be fought in kitchens and blog posts and podcasts across America.  And it may be decided that Francis Lam and your grandmother share a common opinion: that a well-cooked pea is a correctly cooked pea.
“Fresh peas are a lie!” declares Lam, “I feel very strongly about this.” 

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