March 2, 2018

FAIRY TALE FOOD: Peas & RECIPE OF THE MONTH: Split Pea Soup by A.M. Offenwanger

When I was a kid, peas came in cans. I’m sure you know the kind – pop the lid, drain the canning liquid, heat, and eat. They’re small, round, dull green, and above all, soft. Downright mushy, in fact.

The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac

So given that background, Andersen’s tale of “The Princess and the Pea” or, as the original has it, “The Princess on the Pea”, presents a bit of a problem. To recap in case you’ve forgotten, it goes like this: Prince wants a real princess to marry; after long search, a bedraggled, rain-soaked girl turns up at the door of his kingdom (which is opened by the King himself – apparently the kingdom’s budget doesn’t run to employing a butler); the girl claims she’s a real princess; her preternatural princessly sensitivity is tested by means of a single pea under twenty mattresses and as many eiderdown featherbeds; the princess passes the test; the prince marries her, bruises and all; and the pea in question is ensconced in a cabinet of curiosities (presumably for future princesses to admire and aspire to).

Whatever else we know or don’t know about this pea, one thing is crystal clear: we’re not talking about a little mushy morsel from a can here (squish, splat, tiny stain under mattress, The End). Given the original publication date of Andersen’s version, it definitely isn’t a frozen pea, either - freezers were hard to come by in 1835. Besides, the pea would have thawed under the mattresses in very short order, so we’d be back to the stain-under-mattress scenario. A fresh one then? You could try it out – if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, March is prime time for planting garden peas; by June you would have your test subject. But I’ll save you the trouble and just tell you: even fresh peas are too soft for the purpose.

No, the pea the queen was using for her daughter-in-law selection process was neither of those. It was a dried pea, which is literally hard as a rock. I tested it: not with twenty mattresses (I’m not quite that enthusiastic), but a stack of a dozen or so fairy tale books with a combined weight of around fifteen pounds. The pea didn’t even crack.
Then I went one step further: I stuck the pea under the leg of my kitchen table – I can’t give you an actual weight for the table, but its legs are made from four-by-four timber, so you can estimate it. The pea held up. So, scientific study has established that one tiny, round, dried pea is capable of propping up a whole, heavy kitchen table with a fifteen-pound-stack of fairy tale books on top; twenty mattresses, twenty featherbeds, and one presumably slim princess should present no problem to this exemplary vegetable.

Peas do appear in other fairy tales, too – notably in the Grimms’ “Cinderella”, where she has to pick peas and lentils out of the ashes, but also in lesser-known tales like “The Hut in the Forest”, where the peas serve as (ineffective) trail markers similar to Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs. In most of these stories, peas are only incidental to the plot. But I just discovered another charming Andersen tale in which the peas are actually the protagonists: “The Pea Blossom” tells of five little peas in a pod who, upon ripening, meet with various fates out in the wide world. One of them sprouts and grows into a pea plant whose blossom cheers up a sick little girl so much she gets well.

I don’t eat peas out of a can anymore, and as a rule I don’t buy the whole dried ones for cooking, either (only for doing fairy tale experiments or making pea sprouts). But I do use split peas, which make an excellent soup for a day in which it “it thunders and lightens, and the rain pours down from the sky in torrents.” Here is the recipe:
2 cups split peas (1 lb.)
1 onion
3-6 carrots
2-3 celery stalks
8-10 cups water or stock (chicken or ham is good)
SALT and PEPPER to taste
Optional: a ham bone

1. Rinse the peas.
2. Peel and chop the vegetables.
3. Put everything together into a big soup kettle.
4. Simmer for 2-3 hours (or use a slow cooker, 8-10 hours on low) until the peas are soft and fall apart. Remove bone, if you're using one.
5. Blend everything with a stick blender or, if you don't have one or prefer a less smooth texture, crush vegetables with a potato masher.
Serve to princesses and other discerning friends on a cold, rainy day.

Let us know if you try this recipe,
or know of any other fairy tales with peas!
We'd love to hear from you.
A.M. Offenwanger, contributing editor at Enchanted Conversation Magazine, is a writer, reader, blogger, and editor.
Follow her blog Amo Vitam
and follow her on Twitter @amoffenwanger
and on Facebook here

Cover photo and text photos by A.M. Offenwanger
The Princess and the Pea cover illustration by Kay Nielsen
Cover layout by Amanda Bergloff


Carmen said...

This is awesome, I've always thought it's so cool how many fairy tales incorporate the aspect of food in the story, and the Princess and the Pea has always been a great fairy tale.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this! I'm going to have to try your recipe now!

A. M. Offenwanger said...

Food features in very, very many fairy tales, in a big or small way. It's a reflection of how important food is to life - and fairy tales are really a mirror of life!

A. M. Offenwanger said...

The crock pot version is especially convenient - throw it together in the morning before you go to work, and come home to a pot of yummy soup.