Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, better known as M.F.K. Fisher, was an American culinary writer born in 1908. In her twenties she lived for three years in Europe, spending most of her time in Dijon, France, then known as the “gastronomical capital of the world.” She’s best known for her culinary essays, which feature recipes, philosophical reflections, and reminiscences. Her books include Serve It Forth, How to Cook a Wolf, and The Gastronomical Me
P is for peas . . . [and here are] a few reasons why the best peas I ever ate in my life were, in truth, the best peas I ever ate in my life.
Every good cook, from Fannie Farmer to Escoffier, agrees on three things about these delicate messengers to our palates from the kind earth mother: they must be very green, they must be freshly gathered, and they must be shelled at the very last second of the very last minute.
My peas, that is, the ones that reached an almost unbelievable summit of perfection, an occasion that most probably never would happen again, met these three gastronomical requirements to a point of near-ridiculous exactitude. It is possible, however, that even this technical impeccability would not have been enough without the mysterious blending, that one time, of weather, place, and other hungers than my own. After all, I can compare bliss with near bliss, for I have often, blessed me, eaten superlative green peas.
Once, for instance, my grandmother ran out into her garden, filled her apron with the fattest pods, sat rocking jerkily with a kind of nervous merriment for a very few minutes as she shelled them — and before we knew it, she had put down upon the white-covered table a round dish of peas in cream. We ate them with our spoons, something we never could have done at home! Perhaps that added to their fragile, poignant flavor, but not much: they were truly good.
And then once in Paris, in June (what a hackneyed but wonderful combination of the somewhat overrated time-and-place motif!), I lunched at Foyot’s, and in the dim room where hothouse roses stood on all the tables the very month roses climbed crazily outside on every trellis, I watched the headwaiter, as skilled as a magician, dry peas over a flame in a generous pan, add what looked like an equal amount of butter, which almost visibly sent out a cloud of sweet-smelling hay and meadow air, and then swirl the whole.
At the end he did a showy trick, more to amuse himself than me, but I sat open-mouthed, and I can still see the arc of little green vegetables flow up into the air and then fall, with a satisfying shush, back into the pan some three or four feet below and at least a yard from where they took off. I gasped, the headwaiter bowed faintly but with pride, and then we went about the comparatively mundane procedure of serving, tasting, and eating.
Those petits pois au beurre were, like my grandmother’s à la crème mode d’Iowa, good — very good. They made me think of paraphrasing Sydney Smith’s remark about strawberries and saying, “Doubtless God could have made a better green pea, but doubtless God never did.”
That was, however, before the year I started out, on a spring date set by strict local custom, to grow peas in a steep terraced garden among the vineyards between Montreux and Lausanne, on the Lake of Geneva.
The weather seemed perfect for planting by May Day, and I had the earth ready, the dry peas ready, the poles ready to set up. But Otto and Jules, my mentors, said NO so sternly that I promised to wait until May 15, which could easily be labeled Pea-Planting Day in Swiss almanacs. They were right, of course: we had a cold snap that would have blackened any sprout about May 10. As I remember, the moon, its rising, and a dash of hailstones came into the picture too.
And then on May 15, a balmy sweet day if ever I saw one, my seeds went into the warm, welcoming earth, and I could agree with an old gardening manual which said understandingly, “Perhaps no vegetable is set out in greater expectancy . . . for the early planting fever is impatient.”
A week later I put in another row, and so on for a month, and they did as they were meant to, which is one of the most satisfying things that can possibly happen to a gardener, whether greenhorn and eager or professional and weatherworn.
Then came the day with stars on it: time for what my grandmother would have called “the first mess of peas.”
The house at Le Pâquis was still a-building, shapes of rooms but no roof, no windows, trestles everywhere on the wide terrace high above the lake, the ancient apple tree heavily laden with button-sized green fruit, plums coloring on the branches at the far end near the little meadow, set so surprisingly among the vineyards that gave Le Pâquis its name.
We put a clean cloth, red and white, over one of the carpenters’ tables, and we kicked wood-curls aside to make room for our feet under the chairs brought up from the apartment in Vevey. I set out tumblers, plates, silver, smooth unironed napkins sweet from the meadow grass where they had dried.
While some of us bent over the dwarf-pea bushes and tossed the crisp pods into baskets, others built a hearth from stones and a couple of roof tiles lying about and made a lively little fire. I had a big kettle with spring water in the bottom of it, just off simmering, and salt and pepper and a pat of fine butter to hand. Then I put the bottles of Dézaley in the fountain, under the timeless spurt of icy mountain water, and ran down to be the liaison between the harvesters and my mother, who sat shelling peas from the basket on her lap into the pot between her feet, her fingers as intent and nimble as a lace maker’s.
I dashed up and down the steep terraces with the baskets, and my mother would groan and then hum happily when another one appeared, and below I could hear my father and our friends cursing just as happily at their wry backs and their aching thighs, while the peas came off their stems and into the baskets with a small sound audible in that still, high air, so many hundred feet above the distant and completely silent Léman. It was suddenly almost twilight. The last sunlight on the Dents du Midi was fire-rosy, with immeasurable coldness in it.
“Time, gentlemen, time,” my mother called in an unrehearsed and astonishing imitation of a Cornish barmaid.
They came in grateful hurry up the steep paths, almost nothing now in their baskets and looks of smug success upon their faces. We raced through the rest of the shelling, and then while we ate rolled prosciutto and drank Swiss bitters or brandy-and-soda or sherry, according to our various habits, I dashed like an eighteenth-century courier on a secret mission of utmost military importance, the pot cautiously braced in front of me, to the little hearth.
I stirred up the fire. When the scant half inch of water boiled, I tossed in the peas, a good six quarts or more, and slapped on the heavy lid as if a devil might get out. The minute steam showed, I shook the whole like mad. Someone brought me a curl of thin pink ham and a glass of wine cold from the fountain. Revivified, if that were any more possible, I shook the pot again.
I looked up at the terrace, a shambles of sawed beams, cement mixers, and empty sardine tins left from the workmen’s lunches. There sat most of the people in the world I loved, in a thin light that was pink with alpenglow, blue with a veil of pine smoke from the hearth. Their voices sang with a certain remoteness into the clear air, and suddenly from across the curve of the Lower Corniche a cow in Monsieur Rogivue’s orchard moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell into a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn. My father lifted up his face at the sweet sound, his fists all stained with green-pea juice, and said passionately, “God, but I feel good!” I felt near to tears.
The peas were now done. After one more shake I whipped off the lid and threw in the big pat of butter, which had a bas-relief of William Tell upon it. I shook in salt, ground in pepper, and then swirled the pot over the low flames until Tell had disappeared. Then I ran like hell, up the path lined with candytuft and pinks, past the fountain where bottles shone promisingly through the crystal water, to the table.
Small brown roasted chickens lay on every plate, the best ones I have ever eaten, done for me that afternoon by Madame Doellenbach of the Vieux Vevey and not chilled since but cooled in their own intangibly delicate juices. There was a salad of mountain lettuces. There was honest bread. There was plenty of limpid wine, the kind Brillat-Savarin said was like rock-water, tempting enough to make a hydrophobic drink. Later there was cheese, an Emmenthaler and a smuggled Roblichon. . . .
And later still we walked dreamily away, along the Upper Corniche to a cafe terrace, where we sat watching fireworks far across the lake at Evian, and drinking café noir and a very fine fine.
But what really mattered, what piped the high, unforgettable tune of perfection, were the peas, which came from their hot pot onto our thick china plates in a cloud, a kind of miasma, of everything that anyone could ever want from them, even in a dream. I recalled the three basic requisites, according to Fannie Farmer and Escoffier . . . and again I recalled Sydney Smith, who once said that his idea of heaven (and he was a cleric!) was pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Mine, that night and this night too, is fresh green garden peas, picked and shelled by my friends, to the sound of a cowbell.