Back when I was a newspaper editor in Belfast, Maine, one of the more unusual aspects of my job was judging the newspaper’s pea contest. Each spring, the newspaper awarded a prize to the reader who grew the first “mess” of peas.
A recent college graduate from the city, I had no idea what a mess was, other than what my office looked like on a regular basis. Back in those days, you could not just turn on your computer and find instant answers. You had to do your research the more conventional way. Just what is a mess? I asked my colleagues, silently imagining gardens wildly strewn with errant peas and shells. Turns out a mess –- the word comes from a Middle English word for course of a meal — is enough peas to make a dinner. No one I asked knew just how many peas that would require.
This was serious business. Local pea growers were known to plant their peas with heat tape to accelerate the growth or to heat the soil with fresh manure – competitive gardening at its best. But no matter what they did, or when they planted, the peas seemed to be ready at the same time. There would be that day in mid-June when the newspaper phone would ring all day with people calling to let me know their peas were ripe. And I would drive out, up hills and down dirt roads to inspect, visiting each garden and interviewing each grower.
I think of those days often now that I have my own garden and rush in the early spring to plant my peas as soon as the ground has thawed enough for digging. But I’m not worried about winning contests; my goal is to have peas by July 4. Each year I tell my husband that next year I won’t plant peas; we’ll buy them instead. But each year I relent and into the ground they go.
Peas talk to me of summer, past and present. I’m entranced by the curling tendrils that seem to pull the lush green vines up the trellis, by the speed with which star like white flowers morph into succulent green pods. I love sitting outside in the light that seems to last forever this time of year and shelling the peas, eating one every now and then and feeding the husks to my dogs who greedily consume them. When I was a child I would shell peas with my grandfather who used to challenge me to find the pod with the most peas. His record was 11. That pod and its contents sat on his mantelpiece for at least a summer, faded, shriveled, but glorious in its bounty. The very first poem I learned as a child was about peas:
I eat my peas with honey.
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes them taste quite funny;
But it keeps them on the knife.
We ate our first mess of peas tonight. I’m sure the farmers in Waldo County already have harvested many meals, but I’m happy. I beat the fourth by a few days and the peas were delicious.