Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sweet Memory Peas

Sharon Wildwind

When I was no older than four my grandmother kept chickens. Her house, like many in the south, was built several feet off the ground. A green, painted, wooden lattice surrounded the crawl space and also provided containment for her half-dozen chickens.

I remembered this yesterday evening because I shelled peas.

One of my uncles occasionally did “favors” for burdened people in the small town. While he didn’t expect payment, they sometimes gave him a loaf of bread, a lawn-mowing, or garden produce, like a mess of peas. He’d haul the slat-sided basket out of his car trunk, set it on the concrete steps by the back porch, and announce, “So-and-so gave me a mess of peas.”

My grandmother would eye the peas and perhaps run her hand through them to see if she was going to keep them. From a distance of half a century I can only guess what criteria she used. Who they came from? The color? The heft of the pods in her hand? How much room she had in her ice box or how much time she had to shell them? Who knows, but if she decided they weren’t keepers, she’d phone what the called “the old folk’s club,” and announce to the secretary. “I got given a basket of peas that I can’t use. Send Joshua around to pick them up and take them any old people who can use them.”

If she decided to keep them, there would be a pea shelling that evening after supper.

Pea shelling happened after supper because that was the only time cool enough to do anything. This was before air-conditioning.

They also happened on the back porch because Lord forbid that neighbors see you shelling peas. I have no clue why this was proscribed, but apparently in our family, food conservation, like the washing of undies, and occasional missing Mass on Sunday to go fishing was no one else's business.

Like crawfish peeling they happened on the screened porch that ran the length of the kitchen. Unlike crawfish peeling, which required layers of newspaper covering the work table, hammers, and pecan picks doubling as crawfish picks, pea shelling required only large brown paper bags with the top folded down to keep them open, a bushel basket of peas, and several bowls. Pea shelling also required copious amounts of sweet tea, but since this was the south in summer, all back porch activities required copious amounts of sweet tea. I suspect in some places, they still do.

Peas with any sign of mildew or worm damage were discarded, unshelled, into one of the brown paper bags.

The older son — my uncle who’d brought the peas home — was pea snipper. He used a toenail clipper, thankfully kept only for shelling peas, to snip a cut two-thirds of the way through pod at the attachment end. He’d pass the clipped pea pod to his younger brother — my other uncle — who was pea stringer.

He grasped the cut end of the pod and pull the string off, just like he was opening a zipper. The discarded string went into the paper bag with the rejected pods. The clipped and stringed pod was tossed into a large bowl from which the shellers drew their lap stock. Since the two men working in tandem could snip-and-string the entire bushel before the shellers were anywhere close to finishing, they were took their ease while the rest of us worked.

My grandmother, mother, aunt, cousin, and myself were the shellers. Strong well-formed thumbnails were an advantage because they could pop shells open. Since I had nails with neither good configuration or strength, I was given a butter knife to be inserted into the open end of the shell and twisted to pop the pod open. My ragged, bitten fingernail status was no barrier to running my finger down the pod to send peas cascading into a Pyrex bowl on my lap. I always asked for, and got, the blue one.

Most peas were shelled as background to gossip, often carried on in French because children were present. Occasionally a pod would be held out for silent assessment by the pea team.

The tisk-tisk pods came in two varieties: the under-achievers either held no peas or miniscule, premature green dots; these were tossed into the pea shell bag. The over-achievers were crammed to bursting, sometimes literally, with peas grown so big that they pushed up against one-another, turning round peas into flattened spheres. Both were accompanied by a guttural clacking in the back of the throat that said, “Clearly not up to standard.”

Rarely a pod would be held up for mutual admiration. Perfect color, perfect number of peas in the pod, well spaced, perfectly rounded peas. A 9.92 score in the pea Olympics. The fortunate sheller who found one was allowed to eat it. The theory being, I suppose, that such perfection shouldn’t be lost by dumping it in a bowl with lesser competitors. And we were each allowed to eat the last pod that we shelled, so we always set aside the biggest, fattest pod for that final treat.

What does all this have to do with chickens? When I sat shelling peas yesterday evening, I suddenly remembered my grandmother scattering the contents of the pea pod bag on the ground, and chickens running out from under the house to feast. I hadn't thought about, even remembered, my grandmother's chickens in decades.

What does it have to do with writing? I’ll let this week’s quote answer that.

Memories are hunting horns whose sound dies on the wind.
~Guillaume Apollinaire, (1880 – 1918), French poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist, and art critic

The Pea Pod Fairy says when a good memory comes along, grab it quick and write it down before it dies on the wind.


Sandra Parshall said...

I can't recall the last time I even saw fresh peas, much less had the chance to shell them. Maybe I should plant some next year. In our climate, though, the cool-weather window for growing them is vanishingly small. Beans are safer bet.

Martha said...

What a wonderful story and well told. Brought back to taste of fresh, raw peas.

Prentiss Garner said...

My family had a huge garden every year and we spent evenings together on the porch snapping or shelling wonderful memories.

Prentiss Garner said...

We snapped and shelled beans and peass, of course. The MEMORY of those evenings are wonderful.

Julia Buckley said...

Adorable pea-pod fairy! Did you make it?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I made the fairy, with directions from a book called "Wee Folk." There are about four fairies scattered around my living room. I'd have made more, but I ran out of bookshelf space.