Peas on the menu

I read a story on dining-out trends a few days ago that said, “We’re ordering fewer peas …” Of course! I can’t remember when I last ordered peas in a restaurant. Never, I suspect. Plates often come adorned with little piles of grilled asparagus, or maybe julienned carrots and zucchini, but peas? No.

Admittedly, even at this moment, someone could be serving up peas in the pod in a trendy farm-to-table restaurant somewhere in Westchester County or in California wine country, but other than these outlier examples, I ask, how many peas have been served in restaurants in the last several decades? Very few, I’d bet.

Yet, strangely enough, once upon a time they were the darling vegetable of elite restaurants and hotel dining rooms. At Boston’s luxury hotel, Tremont House, an 1843 menu listed “Les Petits Pois à la Parisienne.” Small, tender, bright green peas imported from France were considered a delicacy, and were expensive. American canned green peas came on the market in the 1850s, but it took so many hands to pick and shell them that they too were expensive, yet not considered good enough to displace the popularity of the French imports.

French peas continued to reign even in lesser eating places, often appearing on holiday menus at hotel dining rooms across the land. For example the Rankin House in Columbus GA featured French Peas for Christmas dinner in 1887, along with choice dishes such as Oysters on the Half Shell, Green Turtle Soup, and Tenderloin of Beef with Mushrooms.

In that same year, though, an alarm was raised about the wisdom of eating imported French peas. Their bright green color was produced by adding copper sulfate, warned critics who said this was toxic, fatal if taken in big enough doses. Evidently the warnings did not impress many people because French peas continued to be served in fine restaurants. Loud cries to ban their importation were not heard until after the American invention of a machine that would both pick and shell peas in 1893, thus bringing down their cost to consumers.

In 1906 many states passed pure food laws that made it illegal to sell French peas colored with copper salts. In Idaho the state’s Pure Food Commissioner confiscated 72 cans of imported French peas found in a hotel and destroyed them by punching holes in the cans and pouring kerosene over the contents.

French peas appeared on menus after that, but it’s likely they were grown and canned in the US. “Petit pois” was the name adopted in this country for the smallest size pea, 9/32-inch in diameter. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, French Peas on a menu continued to suggest luxury or a special occasion such as Mother’s Day or Thanksgiving. Green Peas, Garden Peas, and June Peas, on the other hand, suggested freshness and nutrition, but not luxury or style. They were exactly what a diner expected to see filling in the blank spaces on a dinner plate at Howard Johnson’s.

In the last several decades I believe peas have vanished from menus. When was the last time you had peas in a restaurant?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


Filed under food

11 responses to “Peas on the menu

  1. Don Funrald

    Peas, alas the demise of a great vegetable. In the sixties I served them, in my restaurants, then with a number of dishes. I remember specifically that roast L.I. Duckling was most certainly always served with Petit Pois with butter and a hint of fresh basil.

  2. Glen.h

    The last time I saw peas was in a local dish, the Pie Floater. It is an South Australian dish consisting of a meat pie served in a bed of mushy peas. It’s great if done properly, but as bad as you would expect if not…

  3. mae

    Chinese restaurants and other Asian restaurants often serve snow peas, and trendy restaurants often have edible pea pods among the baby vegetables. A Chinese restaurant near us went bad, and substituted frozen peas and carrots for all the vegetables on the menu. HORRORS!!! But that was the last time I saw shelled peas of any sort in a restaurant (and the last time I ate there). Since you asked, I told you.

  4. I came across your amazing blog by searching “French peas” of all things. I have a little up and coming food history blog myself. I want to make a recipe from 1911 which calls for draining and rinsing a can of “French peas”. I’m assuming from what you’ve written here that it’s just a fancy way of saying “peas”. Do you mind if I link to you in my post as a source for this information?

    • Please feel free to link. I would say that in 1911 it would mean to use the smallest peas available, the “petit pois.” They are/were also supposed to be more tender, but obviously all these ideas were before frozen peas became widely available post WWII. The best would be fresh from your own garden.

  5. Tom Byg

    I love peas…Frozen baby peas The last time I had them in a very good restaurant was about 5 years ago but frozen, fresh, two nights ago…with mashed potatoes, heavy cream and butter,thank you very much…health food!

  6. Martin

    My guess is that any peas served in restaurants, like most homes, have been frozen. Peas are one of the few foods that freezing doesn’t much degrade from fresh. But canning really degrades them. That said, I still see peas mostly in unusual places in restaurants. Peas with cheese tortollini in a cream sauce, for instance.

    Peas have a more powerful flavor than most vegetables, surprisingly. Chefs may be backing off to spotlight the flavors of their proteins and sauces.


  7. Dylan

    It’s true, very few peas around these days unless you go into an English pub. We have many pubs in Southern California. Then it’s peas all around. Bangers and mash with peas. Fish and chips with peas. We just pray they are fresh and not canned! – Thanks for all the wonderful research.

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