Churchill, China, Elegabalus and the Pea

 

Winston Churchill  once famously said “All the essentials of life are a mere four: hot baths, cold champagne, old brandy, and new peas”.

 

Peas first appeared on earth, according to Norse legend, as a sign of displeasure from the god Thor. He was angry at the lack of devotion he was receiving so he sent a squadron of dragons to block the wells of his feckless worshippers with peas being held in their talons. Perhaps inevitably some of the peas missed the target and fell on the ground, where they sprouted and developed into little  pea plants. After the usual wailing and gnashing the Norsemen then decided to dedicate this new plant to Thor and would only eat it on his day, Thursday.  The tale does not end there though, whenever Thor felt put out (which seemed fairly often) he would despatch little gangs of dwarves to pick all the peas from the vines.

The Chinese, however, in keeping with their claim to have invented just about everything  assert their ownership of our little green friends through the story of the “Divine Farmer”. The story goes that Emperor Shen Nung, the Divine Farmer planted them all along the countryside whilst visiting his kingdoms. When not planting peas he also found time to invent the plough, the rake and discovered tea..

In academic and scientific circles there has been much head scratching over the origin of the pea. It appears to be so ancient that from a geographical or botanical viewpoint no one appears to have a clue. The nearest they have come to an answer is a chubby finger pointing at somewhere in Asia.

 

Ancient pea remains, however, are like discarded supermarket trolleys. They seem to have been found everywhere. From Swiss lake dwellings, Neolithic farming villages scattered across Europe, and carbonised leftovers from Near Eastern pea feasts — likely domesticated peas — have been dated to 7000 BC.

All these early peas, archaeologists have concluded were far tougher and chewier than Pisum sativum, the edible peas of today. In order to eat them , our ancestors probably roasted them and then peeled them like chestnuts.

 

Peas, both wild and tame, are legumes, members of the family Fabaceae, which bear their fleshy proteinaceous seeds in a protective pod. The third largest of the flowering plant families, trailing only Orchids (Orchidaceae) and Daisies (Asteraceae), the legumes include some 700 genera and 20,000 species worldwide, popping up everywhere from rain forests to deserts. Pea relatives range from minuscule herbs to massive trees, and include lentils, broad beans, chickpeas, soybeans, peanuts, lima beans, kidney beans, carob, licorice, clover, wisteria, mimosa, rosewood, indigo, and kudzu.

The Greeks and Romans grew peas. Hot pea soup was peddled in the streets of Athens; fried peas — or perhaps fried chickpeas or garbanzo beans (Cicer arietinum) — were sold to spectators in lieu of popcorn at the Roman circus and in theatres. The ever vigilant Apicius lists fourteen recipes for peas, including basic peas (with leeks and herbs), peas “Supreme Style” (with thrushes, Lucanian sausage, bacon, and white sauce), and peas à la Vitellius (with hard-boiled eggs and honey).

According to the fourth-century Historia Augusta, the extravagant teenaged emperor Elagabalus ,who was a promiscuous hedonist who had lovers of both sexes. He was also in the habit of harnessing teams of naked women to his chariot and whip them as they pulled him around the palace grounds. Hardly surprisingly his brief reign ended in an assassination arranged by his grandmother. He would serve peas with gold pieces at his banquets, as well as lentils with onyx, beans with amber, and rice with pearls. The senator and historian Cassius Dio also describes how Elagabalus would dress as a woman and visit the taverns of Rome at night in order to play the prostitute.Later, he set up his own brothel within the palace compound, and would stand in the doorway naked, soliciting customers with ‘a soft and murmurous voice’.

 

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