Sunday, January 19, 2014

Mrs. Beeton's "pea soup (inexpensive)," 1861

Again, never mind bizarre references to spring weather when it's January. I'm still uploading rescued posts from At First Glass.

Since our spring weather remains so chilly, it seems right to indulge in the comfort of soup. In this case it's split pea soup from a cookbook and household manual that is one hundred and fifty years old. Our "Editress" and source of the recipe is Isabella Beeton, the young Victorian matron who, in collecting and transcribing readers' recipes and writing other home-themed articles for her husband's publication, The English Woman's Domestic Magazine, managed in two years (1859-1861) to produce the massive Beeton's Book of Household Management. ("I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it.") Despite the labour and courage, Mrs. Beeton ended a tragic figure, literally tragic in the high-school English 101 definition of the word: the noble soul overwhelmed by circumstances outside herself. Everything in her book, all starchily and beautifully written, is about good food, thrift, cleanliness, correctness, wholesomeness and safety; and yet when it came time for her to give birth to her fourth child, some fool messed up -- I assume. She died of the ancient scourge, puerperal fever, a month before she would have turned thirty.

But let's not think about unhappy things like that. Let's turn, instead, to one of her many hundreds of recipes, inexpensive pea soup. We meet with it just a few pages after Apple Soup, which we also must try very soon. This latter calls for "soup apples," whatever they may have been. Or was "soup" a misprint for "sour"? And speaking of ingredients, what precisely is a split pea?

It would seem that there is only one type of edible garden pea, known since prehistoric times, Pisum sativum. (There is a field or grey pea used as animal fodder, but that's not what our soup will be made of. Nor will it have anything to do with the sweet pea flower, Lathyrus odoratus, which you attempt to grow beside your goldenrods and coneflowers in summer, but which resents the midwestern heat and spends a lot of time laying around pining for the cool and damp of England.) Relics of P. sativum's cultivation and eating have been found in settlements in Switzerland dating back to the Bronze Age, five thousand years ago. The French petit pois or little pea is simply the pea harvested young; the Chinese peapod, or snow pea or sugar pea, eaten whole, pod and all, is also our ordinary garden pea.

When the peas inside their pod are dried and split, they are called -- sensibly -- split peas. These were a food of the poor during the Middle Ages, "especially in winter," the Oxford Companion to Food tells us, because they were "cheap, filling, and a useful source of protein." In his wonderful encyclopedia Food Waverley Root tells us that he lived for years in Paris on a street called Rue du Cherche-Midi. The name, translated Hunt-for-Noon street, harked back to medieval times when nuns in a local convent served dried pea soup every midday to the district's poor.

In their essentials split pea soup recipes do not vary much one from another, and I suppose haven't varied much since the Middle Ages. A pound of peas, four quarts of water or broth, some onions, perhaps potatoes, a little fat of some kind (often bacon drippings), all simmered together for two or three hours comprise its most basic version. If anything, Mrs. Beeton's recipe is lighter, more interesting -- why, carrots! and mint, and brown sugar -- and simpler to prepare than many which require soaking the peas overnight, or stop only at the above four very basic ingredients, or worse, end by puréeing the whole cauldron of it, thus ruining the peas' nice texture. She doesn't go so far as to add a cup of cream in the manner of a few elegant cookbooks, but I do believe it's very good without it.

The fundamental color, alas, can't be helped, which is why I think puréeing such a mistake. In Splendid Soups James Peterson suggests whirling fresh peas into it as well, to make the green even brighter, but somehow I am not sure I want my bowl of comfort to boast the hues of the lushly growing front lawn in this chilly May. 

Mrs. Beeton's split pea soup
  • 3 to 4 Tbsp butter
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 package (1 lb.) dried split peas, washed and picked over (you must remove any pebbles)
  • 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • "a little mint, shred fine"
  • 4 quarts water, "or liquor in which joint of meat has been boiled" (But what about some ham? Mrs. Beeton says nothing about it. Include 1 or 2 slices leftover ham, diced)
Melt the butter in a large pot and when it foams, add and sauté the onion, celery, and carrot, cooking about ten minutes until they soften. Pour on the water, bring to a boil, and add the split peas. Add the ham if you are using it. Simmer the soup for about 3 hours. Stir in the brown sugar, salt and pepper, and mint (I did omit this, fearing mint and ham would make an odd combination). 

And that is all. Enjoy a steaming, smoky-flavored bowlful, while you admire the bursting spring greenery all around you, the white and pink blossoming magnolias and apple trees, the crabtrees loaded with deep crimson and bright magenta froth, and the yellow daffodils and the creamy-peach jonquils, and a thousand species of growing things in the woods coming out in all their early dusky shades of reddish and tawny brown and even lime-green, and then, what else? --  the poor fat robins attempt their cheerful singing at three in the morning, notice the cold and give it up as a bad job, start again at three-thirty and give up again, try again at four and finally at four-fifteen have a good gargle and start their yodeling in earnest -- and then there are those vivid orange tulips nodding  beside the deep maroon sign for the Christian Science church you see on the drive home from work; all the while peering between the thudding windshield wipers during the endless spring rains. Oh, I don't mean you are savoring your bowl of split pea soup at three in the morning while you are driving. I just mean, well, lordy -- it's cold.

Explore also: The Short Life and Long Times of Isabella Beeton by Kathryn Hughes (published in 2005).

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