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A Brief History of Peas

Pea Drawing

Field pea (Pisum sativum, L.) was among the first crops cultivated by man. Some say the word "pea" came from Sanskrit; however, most concur that the Latin pisum, resembling the older Greek pisos or pison, is the true origin of the word. The Anglo-Saxon word became pise or pisu, and later in English, "pease". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, by 1600 the last two letters were dropped because people believed the word was plural, forming the singular "pea" that we know today.

As most peas are a cool-weather crop, historians believe the main centre of pea development was middle Asia, including northwest India and Afghanistan. A second area of development lies in the Near East, and a third includes the plateau and mountains of Ethiopia. Wild field peas of related species can still be found in Afghanistan, Iran, and Ethiopia.

Peas were one of the earliest food crops. Cultivation brought stability to once-nomadic tribes, and made it possible for peas to be brought by travellers and explorers into the countries of the Mediterranean as well as to the Far East.

9750 BC

Evidence of wild pea consumption by humans, discovered by archaeologists exploring the "Spirit Cave" on the border between Burma and Thailand.

7000 BC

An archaeological dig at Jarmo in northwestern Iraq uncovered peas that were dated between 7000 and 6000 BC.

3000 BC

The archaeological remains of Bronze Age villages in Switzerland contain early traces of primitive peas dating back to 3000 BC. Peas found buried in a cave in Hungary are believed to date back even further.

500 BC

The Greeks and the Romans were cultivating dried peas about 500 to 400 BC, and vendors in the streets of Athens were selling hot pea soup. Scholars believe the peas came either from the area around Switzerland southward into Greece, or from India to the east.

25 BC

Apicius (b. 25 BC), cookbook author of the Roman world, publishes nine recipes for cooking dried peas. Some are cooked with other vegetables and herbs, while others combine peas with meats and poultry. This attention demonstrates the importance of peas in the Roman diet.


Historians are unsure when peas arrived in China. However, there is evidence that by the 7th century peas were being cultivated by the Chinese and were called hu tou, meaning "foreign legume". Some believe the Chinese were the first to consider peas a fresh vegetable rather than a dried commodity, and to consume the entire pod.


When peas reached France around 800, Charlemagne had them planted in his domains. During the Middle Ages, dried peas became a staple food for European peasants. In their dried form, peas could be stored throughout the winter months. They were inexpensive and plentiful, and made a wholesome meal that the poor could afford.


In the 12th century, among other foods stored at the famous Barking Nunnery, near London, were "green peas for Lent."


By the 13th century peas were a popular food in France. Street vendors in Paris would cry "I have fresh peas in the pod."


At the end of the 14th century, the Italians had cultivated tiny peas called piselli novelli which were eaten fresh rather than dried.


Before the end of the 16th century, botanists in Belgium, Germany, and England described many kinds of peas: tall and dwarf; with white, yellow and green seed colors; smooth, pitted and wrinkled seeds.


When Catherine de Medici married Henry II of France in 1533, she brought many of her favorite foods with her from Italy including the piselli novella. These little peas were so different from the dried peas of peasant fare that, among the elite, they created a new vogue in French cuisine. The French became known for their exceptional tiny peas called petit pois, a name still used today. Some areas of France became so well known for their peas that the names of towns such as Saint-Germain and Clamart were attached to the names of recipes incorporating the little peas.


Peas became a familiar Lenten dish in France and England, although Lent was not the only time that peas were a staple of the English diet. During the reign of King James I (1566 to 1625), shopkeepers could be heard touting their wares in the streets of London: "Hot grey peas and a suck of bacon."


Dried peas were used by the early explorers of "New France" to make traditional French Canadian pea soup. Nutritious and portable, peas were a staple of the voyageurs' diet, supplying the power behind the muscle and brawn of early exploration and trade in Canada.


Fresh garden peas were not common until the 18th century. Toward the end of the 17th century they were still such a rare delicacy that fantastic prices were sometimes paid for them in France. "This subject of peas continues to absorb all others," Madame de Maintenon wrote in 1696. "Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness."


During the mid 1700s, major changes took place in England's agricultural laws, and large plots of farmland were allotted to private estates. King George III's Enclosures Act denied the poor access, and instead they relied on small pieces of land to grow enough to feed their families. Unable to grow sufficient food themselves, they turned to commodities like dried peas that could be purchased cheaply.


By the 1800s The Vegetable Garden, an encyclopedia of cultivated vegetable plants published in France, devoted 50 pages to the different varieties of cultivated peas. Some are still grown today, but many have been lost.


Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, conducted experiments on how pea plants reproduced, and created the science of genetics. Educated at the University of Vienna, his experiments in the1860s led to standard laws of genetic inheritance. He recognized that some of the pea plant's traits were dominant while others were recessive. Mendel died in obscurity, but in 1900 his work was rediscovered and his contribution to the study of genetics recognized.


When canned vegetables came into vogue during the late 1800s, they were very affordable. Peas were probably among the first vegetables to be canned by the Campbell Soup Company. Though the heat of the canning process destroys the chlorophyll that gives peas their natural bright green color, the dull, olive green color and distinct canned flavor did not discourage true pea aficionados. Canned peas turned up frequently as a familiar side dish on English and American dinner plates.


The advent of frozen vegetables in the 1920s and 1930s provided a new advantage for peas. They could be harvested and frozen almost immediately, preventing their sugars from turning to starch. People who did not grow their own peas or who lived a great distance from a farm could still enjoy the sweet flavor of freshly-picked peas.


More than a thousand varieties of peas are in existence today, both green and yellow. Canada, the US, Europe, China, India, Russia and Australia lead the world in the production of peas.