"There were three sailors
of Bristol City
Who took a boat
and went to sea.
But first with beef
and captain's biscuits
And pickled pork
they loaded she.
...Now when they got
as far as the Equator
They'd nothing left
but one split pea"
--William Makepeace Thackeray,
"I once ate a pea."
--George (Beau) Brummel, when asked at dinner if he ever ate vegetables.
"Petit pois are like children--you have to understand them."
--James de Coquet in Le Figaro
"I eat my peas with honey
I've done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny
But it keeps them on the knife."
Shem the Penman "even ran away with hunself and became a farsoonerite, saying he would far sooner muddle thorugh the hash of lentils in Europe then meddle with Irrland's split little pea"
--James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake
Native to western Asia, peas were discovered at the site of the Bronze-age Swiss lake dwellings and in the remains of ancient Troy. It's believed that they originated in the Mideast sometime around 6000 BC--but their fresh flavor is so divine, many swear they were native to the Garden of Eden.
They were not, however, eaten fresh in Europe until the 16th century, when they became a great delicacy and the darling of the titled and rich. Before then, they were a staple of the poor in dried form, often helping whole populations survive famine. Thus the old "pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old." See beans for more general information.
When fresh petits pois were developed from the old grey peasant legumes in 17th century France, the aristocracy went mad. With sugar snaps hundreds of years away, the great chefs nevertheless served them in the pod. The gourmands of France would dip them whole in a sauce, then delicately slip the whole pod in their mouths and pop the peas out by pulling the pod out through the teeth. Women of fashion would order them to be served in their chambers at day's end as a soporific. Madame de Maintenon wrote:
"The impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again are the three points of private gossip...it is both a fashion and a madness."
In the 1860s, the Czech monk Gregor Mendel deduced the fundamental laws of genetic inheritance from his observations of successive generations of peas.
Consider also the folk take on peas and social caste:
THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA
by Hans Christian Andersen
There was once a Prince who wanted to marry a Princess;
but she was to be a real princess. So he traveled about, all
through the world, to find a real one, but everywhere there was
something in the way. There were princesses enough, but whether
they were real princesses he could not quite make out: there was always sometlling that did not seem quite right. So he came home
again, quite sad: for he wished so much to have a real princess.
One evening a terrible storm came on. It lightened and thundered, the rain streamed down; it was quite fearful! Then there was
a knocking at the town gate, and the old King went out to open it.
It was a Princess who stood outside the gate. But, mercy, how she
looked, from the rain and the rough weather! The water ran down
from her hair and her clothes; it ran in at the points of her shoes,
and out at the heels; and yet she declared that she was a real princess.
"Yes, we will soon find that out," thought the old Queen. But
she said nothing, only went into the bedchamber, took all the bedding off, and put a pea on the flooring of the bedstead; then she took
twenty mattresses and laid them upon the pea, and then twenty
eider-down beds upon the mattresses. On this the Princess had to lie
all night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept.
"Oh, miserably!" said the Princess. ''I scarcely closed my eyes all
night long. Goodness knows what was in my bed. I lay upon something hard, so that I am black and blue all over. It is dreadful!"
Now they saw that she was a real princess, for through the twenty
mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds she had felt the pea. No
one but a real princess could be so delicate.
So the Prince took her for a wife, for now he knew that he had
a true princess; the pea was put in the museum, and it is there now,
unless somebody carried it off. Look you, this is a true story.