Jilly D.

June Peas

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 8, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Family of Fallow DeerFawns leaping. Buffalo calving. Pastures pop up green. The perch jump from the pond to splash in the dawn’s red light. From the first spring garlic greens to strawberries, spinach, radishes and baby lettuces, the taste of the garden comes back into the kitchen. The fields get planted and the corn seedlings emerge and grow inches in a single day.

June is the month of peas. The cool and damp nights and the sunny days nurture the vines. Some afternoons I swear I can see them stretching and growing. Every morning I spend the last moments of dawn with a hoe in the pea patch. Slicing off any new weeds at the roots and turning the dew on the soil into the roots of the pea plants gives them a head start. Once they flower, the pods begin to form.peas

Since my first summer with Sam I gardened here and mostly learned the hard way how to deal with weeds. Have you ever seen the yard ornaments that are wooden cutouts of old women bent over from the waist in the garden? The muscles along the backs of my legs and my lower back convinced me there had to be a better way. I have since worn the seats out of several pairs of shorts and overalls and jeans in learning weed management. The hoe is the most powerful tool in the farm fight against weeds. None of the toxic chemicals you can apply to soil work nearly as well as a hoe and bending over to get weeds right by the roots.

Growing up my parents believed we should learn to eat our vegetables. We did! I gagged on the puke-green tinny tasting canned peas. I used to spit them into my napkin or hide them under the rim of my plate. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I learned my dad hated canned peas too. He ate them because he wanted us to learn to love them.

I do love fresh peas. I don’t mean pea pods or sugar snaps. I mean old fashioned shell peas. Sometimes they call them English peas which the British eat with a butter knife.

When I tend my pea patch I treat the plants as living beings and gently lift the vines as a groom would a lace veil. When I tend to plants that bear food for me to eat, I try to be as humane to these living beings as I am to the four legged creatures who provide us with meat.

I only pick the pea pods that are fully developed. I don’t let them get too big and starchy. When the peas seem to burst out of the natural wrappers, you may have waited too long. Sugars begin to turn to starch as the pea matures into the seed for the next pea plant.

Mornings are the best time to pick peas. For hours I will gently tug the pods loose from the veil. Taste testing is encouraged. I often wonder if the original Pez dispenser of sweet candies didn’t get their original inspiration from sweet pea pods. I am a kid in the candy store and I snack along the row.

The more I pick, the more the pea plants flower. The more they flower, the more peas they produce. Some seasons I start my first harvest the last week of June and pick until August. If I don’t pull the vines and the fall brings cool and damp weather the plants may generate a smaller second harvest of fall peas.

Industrial farmers broadcast their pea seeds across acres of fields and harvest with enormous machines. The vines are ripped out and the pods shaken loose and the peas are sent on to be sorted, canned or dried. These farmers wait until almost all of the peas have gotten large enough in their pods to harvest. It’s all over within a matter of hours. There is just one picking.

I usually pick the same plants ten times over the course of a season. We don’t use the industrial model for our small scale operation but that doesn’t mean I don’t find machines useful. Uncle Donald Warren built a pea shelling machine from blueprints issued by Cornell Cooperative Extension many decades ago. Today, this contraption runs off the power generated by the solar panels, windmills and waterwheel. Uncle Donald converted it from handcrank to electric in the 1950s.

The pea shelling machine is a wire mesh basket that opens up so you can pour a peck of pea pods inside. The wire mesh is just large enough to allow the peas to fall through, but not the pods. With cotter pins, the basket is fastened shut. Above the basket is a wooden cover that directs any flying peas back down. Below the basket is a drawer. It sits on the machine’s base of legs. The basket spins around breaking open pods. The peas pop out and drop down into the drawer below.

Once the pods have been broken open, the wire mesh basket is cleaned out of the empty pods. These treats are fed to the deer, elk and buffalo. The pods are too chewy and stringy for the human digestive system. To the big critters, it’s candy.

The drawer is removed from the pea shelling machine and the second stage of preparing peas in bulk begins. The “running board” is a piece of rough cut lumber with side boards attached and mounted on a slant with short legs in front and long legs in back. First you get the board wet with water. Then you place a bucket at the bottom of the running board to catch the clean peas. Slowly you pour the contents of the pea drawer from the top of the board. The chaff sticks to the board and the peas roll quickly into the bucket.  Clean as a whistle. Add a little water and steam for a sinfully good treat.

In winter there is nothing like the taste of farm fresh peas. As a vegetable side dish, in soup or rice, there’s nothing so good as peas. I eat my fill of raw ones during the season and savor them steamed in June and July. I set up operations to freeze peas once I have run a bushel through the pea shelling machine.

My summer kitchen for freezing large quantities of vegetables is in winter my cold storage area. We don’t heat this space in winter and in summer we don’t want the heat from baking or cooking in the main room of the cabin.

After Sam built the waterwheel, the lean-to was replaced with a galley kitchen that serves in winter as cold storage and in summer as a kitchen. There is a crank-out window to the north side that opens outdoors to let the steam out in summer.

There is one freezer in the barn and one in the breezeway. We usually run only one freezer by February, having depleted some of our frozen foods. By June we have more than enough electricity because of the long days, so I start filling the second freezer with the fresh crops of fruits and vegetables for the next year.

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