Peas on Earth

Peggy Cornett

Thomas Jefferson happily noted that by staggering the planting of peas – his favorite vegetable – he was able to eat them fresh from the gardens between the middle of May to the middle of July. Just as it was in Jefferson’s day, the 1000-foot garden remains a source of pride and joy for Monticello, as well as a space in which our gardeners joyfully grow many of the same varieties of peas that Jefferson once grew himself.

Amongst our amazing gardening team is Peggy Cornett, Curator of Plants and go-to authority for anything growing in the vegetable garden. Cornett has been with Monticello for over 35 years. She frequently lectures on garden history, writes for gardening magazines and professional journals, and even appears on PBS’s “Virginia Home Grown” and “P. Allen Smith Garden Home.” Naturally, she’s just the person to talk to for the inside scoop on Jefferson’s pea obsession.

Cornett walked us through the gardens. The tour began at the strawberry plants – then onto Mandan red clay corn, and Ox-heart cabbage – all of which were growing nicely. But what might be even more delightful than the wonderful bounty of produce is the unique scenery atop Jefferson’s “little mountain.” The rows of deep, lush green are strikingly accented by the sea-like view of the blue Virginia Piedmont and speckled with the varying colors of the growing produce. It’s a starkly beautiful comparison to what you might expect at most gardens.

As we walked through the garden, we began to spot peas growing in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Cornett pointed out a few varieties of peas, including the Prussian Blue and the Marrowfat Pea.

Marrowfats are usually a late or main-crop because they peak towards early June or – depending on when they’re planted – late June in some regions. Marrowfat is a traditional pod with large seeds (peas) that were popular in England. The pea found its way to North American and Eastern markets through exports, and today is used in a variety of cooking. A ripe marrowfat crops at only a foot or so tall, and they need to be harvested daily else they turn starchy and bitter. When harvested correctly, marrowfats are delightfully versatile. Jefferson regularly planted Marrowfat Peas at Monticello, occasionally even multiple times a year.

At first glance the Blue-podded Capucijner look dry, even burnt. Rest assured—they’re as tasty as any pea out there. A centuries-old heirloom varietal, these were first grown in Holland and Germany during the early 1600’s. The bi-colored flowers are lilac pink to wine red then slowly turn blue as they wilt. The pods (pictured here) are a deep maroon or purple. Even against ripe red strawberries, these peas boldly stand out, thanks to their brilliantly vibrant color.

Blue-podded Capucijner make phenomenal split peas and are best used in soups when the pods are full. Like any pea, these should not be kept longer than a year. Jefferson likely knew the shelf-life of all of his produce and kept meticulous records of plants and harvests. With as much as he enjoyed eating them, it’s unlikely that any peas lasted 12 months at Monticello!

Aside from his personal preference, Jefferson took note of the English pea because of an annual neighborhood contest in which neighborhood farmers would compete to see who could bring peas to the dinner table first. The winner would go on to host the other contestants in a wonderful dinner that included – you guessed it – peas.

A wealthy neighbor and friend to the Jefferson’s, George Divers, generally came up victorious in the competition. On one occasion, Jefferson had the peas first. When reminded that he could host the dinner and invite company, he replied, “No, say nothing about it, it will be more agreeable to our friend to think that he never fails.”

All this talk of peas made us hungry, so as a last favor, we asked Cornett to share what her go-to pea recipe was.

“…from the Mary Randolph Cookbook: The Virginia Housewife, 1824. This book contains recipes from the Jefferson household. Mary Randolph was related to Jefferson by marriage…” Cornett explains, “…the green pea soup recipe on page 33 is really good.”

You’ll never know until you try it. So here it is:

Ingredients:

  • One quart of split peas
  • 3 onions, chopped
  • Salt & pepper
  • ¼ pound butter
  • 2 spoonful flour
  • Tea spoon celery seed pounded
  • Salt Pork (optional)

Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and add the peas, chopped onions, salt, and pepper. Boil for 2 hours. Sieve them thoroughly, returning the liquid to the pot. Thicken up the soup with butter and flour then serve it with toasted bread and/or salted pork.

When we asked why she enjoyed this so much, Cornett said, “I love that butter is used so liberally. Yum.”

Yum indeed.

Pat Brodowski

The gardens wouldn’t be what they are today without the expert care of specialty gardener Pat Brodowski. Brodowski and her team of gardeners and volunteers maintain the plantation’s two-acre kitchen garden, conduct extensive research, and grow varieties of plants most likely grown by Jefferson. If you see her while walking through the gardens, be sure to let her know that you appreciate her team’s work.

Don’t forget to pick up packets of seeds for these vegetables and many others at The Shop at Monticello, located in our Visitor Center or by visiting the shop online.

Ha-pea eating!