First Taste of the Season

The beach peas are in bloom. Each day when I walk Sally up over the dune to see her grandparents, there are more—scribbles of purple and pink in a wash of green. We look carefully, taking note of the changes, waiting for the flowers to harden into pods and thicken with peas.

At night, we read about peas. We read the chapter in Thoreau on the Wellfleet oysterman, about the way he likes his beach peas cooked green. We imagine the Junes when horses grazed the beach at sunken Billingsgate, filling their bellies with the wild snack. We read a report about the winter that people in Sussex were saved by beach peas, snacking on the dried, tiny seeds.

We look up beach peas in our field guide to plants of the seashore and learn that Lathyrus japonicas is the name of this plant. It is widespread along the New England coast, usually found slightly above the high-tide line and it produces peas in pods that are identical in every way to cultivated peas, except that they are tiny. Lathyrus japonicas is not a push-over—pick these diminutive delights fast.

We check the plants early and often. When they come they’ll be fleeting, and we don’t want to miss the tiny sweets. We look back through our kitchen notebook: June 22, says one entry. The next year says the same. Last year they came early: June 16. We bet on opening day for this year: with the warm winter, my money says June 18.

When the big day finally comes, we’ll have a feast.

We’re already eating the garden varieties—“Lincolns” and “Mr. Bigs” and the “Tall Telephone” shell peas. We eat them all sorts of ways—as snacks in the garden, tossed with pasta and prosciutto with a little bit of cream. We make sugar snap salads and sautés, and stuff roasting chickens with an English pea dressing. I make Petit Pois with a head of butter lettuce on a rainy day. At the restaurant where I work, the cooks make a fresh pea soup that is bright spring green.

When the beach peas come this year, they’ll be Sally’s first taste. The tiny kernels will be just her size, especially as they wrinkle and cook down with heat. We’ll pair them with carrots—sweet on sweet—the last of fall fattening up for spring. We’ll drizzle them with olive oil, toss them with shallots, and put them in to roast with a shower of balsamic. Then it will be green on the fingers, green on the cheeks—and a highchair messy with peas from the beach.


Elspeth Hay lives in Wellfleet

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