So did you know that Thomas Jefferson's vegetable garden at Monticello was one thousand feet long and contained more than 250 varieties of more than 75 species of plants from around the world?
Tended by elderly slaves, called “veteran aides,” Jefferson’s garden was divided into twenty-four squares, or growing plots, arranged according to which part of the plant was to be harvested, be it roots (carrots and beets), leaves (lettuce and cabbage) or fruits (tomatoes, peas, and beans). Among the many exotic new plants grown there were beans and salsify collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, figs from France, peppers from Mexico, and broccoli and squash imported from Italy.
As methodical as a botanist, Jefferson recorded the results of his planting experiments in his Garden Book, noting such events as the dates that seeds were planted, when leaves appeared, and when his favorite vegetables were ready to eat. Biographers say that Jefferson’s favorite vegetables included tomatoes, turnip greens, corn, and sweet potatoes. He was also particularly fond of the English pea, and, by staggering the time of their planting, he and his many dinner guests were able to enjoy them from mid-May through mid-July.
According to scholars at Monticello:
Jefferson might have taken special note of the English pea because of an annual neighborhood contest to see which farmer could bring to table the first peas of spring. The winner would host the other contestants in a dinner that included the peas.
Though Jefferson's mountaintop garden, with its southern exposure to warmth and light, should have provided an advantage for the contest, it seems that the contest was almost always won by a neighbor named George Divers.
As Jefferson's grandson recalled: "A wealthy neighbor [Divers], without children, and fond of horticulture, generally triumphed. Mr. Jefferson, on one occasion had them first, and when his family reminded him that it was his right to invite the company, he replied, 'No, say nothing about it, it will be more agreeable to our friend to think that he never fails.'"
Given his great fondness for peas, it's not surprising that these tiny green vegetables often appeared on Jefferson's table, both at Monticello and at the newly built President's House in Washington D.C. In her popular 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, Mary Randolph (a relative of Jefferon's) included a recipe for preparing this simple, slightly-minty dish:
To have them in perfection, they must be quite young, gathered early in the morning, kept in a cool place, and not shelled until they are to be dressed; put salt in the water, and when it boils, put in the peas; boil them quick twenty or thirty minutes, according to their age; just before they are taken up, add a little mint chopped very fine, drain all the water from the peas, put in a bit of butter, and serve them up quite hot.
If you'd like to make some English Peas with Mint, you can't go wrong with this more modern recipe from epicurious.com
1 spring onion, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups English peas, shelled (about 12 ounces)
6 mint leaves, torn
Sauté the spring onion in two tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shelled peas, a pinch of salt, and enough water to barely cover. Cook over high heat for 2 minutes, then add the torn mint leaves. Continue cooking until the peas are tender, a few more minutes. Add more salt if needed.
FAST FACT: When English colonists arrived in America, "pease" were one of the first crops to be planted. This makes sense as peas are nutritious and required little storage space on ships. They would also keep for long periods of time, as reflected in the children's rhyming song "Pease Porridge Hot." Maybe you remember the lyrics: Pease porridge hot/Pease porridge cold/Pease porridge in the pot/Nine days old.