Garden Peas and Spinach from the Middle East

Pea (Pisum sativum) gets its English name indirectly from the Latin pisum. In AngloSaxon the word became pise or pisu; later, in English it was "pease." So many people thought pease was plural that they persisted in dropping the "s" sound, thus making the word "pea." The Latin name resembles the older Greek pisos, or pison.

Many different species have long been called "pea," so that this word alone is not definite. In much of our own South today "peas" usually means some edible variety of cowpeas. In referring to what most of the United States understands as "peas" (P. sativum), the southerner says "English peas."

The main center of origin and development of this pea is middle Asia, from northwest India through Afghanistan and adjacent areas. A second area of development lies in the Near East, and a third includes the plateau and mountains of Ethiopia. In these areas wild peas of related species have been found, along with a remarkable diversity of cultivated forms of P. sativum, but wild P. sativum has never been found.

This pea was first grown only for its dry seed. Some varieties are grown extensively today for the dry seeds for "split peas" for soup. The varieties known until about a thousand years ago had seeds that were much smaller, dark colored, and otherwise different from our garden types.

Cave Men Ate Primitive Peas

Seeds of primitive peas have been found in lake mud beneath the positions of houses of the Swiss lake dwellers, dating back perhaps 5,000 years to the Bronze Age. Peas also were found buried in a cave in Hungary, believed by some to date back even further.

Despite recurrent claims, this species of pea has not been found among any of the ancient Egyptian treasures, but it has been found in diggings on the site of ancient Troy. The Aryans from the East are supposed to have introduced peas to the Greeks and Romans, who grew them before the Christian Era. Greek and Roman writings indicate that the crop was held in no special favor.

There is no hint of "green peas" until after the Norman Conquest of England. In the 12th century, among other foods stored at the famous old Barking Nunnery, near London, were "green peas for Lent." Nothing really definite was recorded about them, however, until 1536, when they were described in detail in France. The edible-podded pea was also known at that time.

Before the end of the 16th century, botanists in Belgium, Germany, and England described many kinds of peas-tall and dwarf, with white, yellow, green seed colors; smooth, pitted, and wrinkled seeds.

Garden peas were not common until the 18th century. Toward the end of the 17th century they were still such a rare delicacy that fantastic prices were sometimes paid for them in France.

"This subject of peas continues to absorb all others," Madame de Maintenon wrote in 1696. "Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness. "

The English developed fine varieties; hence the common designation "English peas" in America.

About a hundred years ago the famous Austrian monk, Gregor Johann Mendel, was working with peas in laying the foundation of the modern science of genetics.

Spinach Hails from Persia

Spinach (Spinacea oleracea) has remarkably similar-sounding names in the languages of many widely separated lands, indicating that its spread to those lands has been comparatively recent.

Our name for spinach comes from the Old French espinache, which was derived from Arabic or Persian words of somewhat similar sound. The Armenian name is spanax and the Spanish is spanacha, or espinaca. The technical Latinized name spinacea is a term devised by botanists probably no earlier than the 12th or 13th century.

Spinach is native to Iran (Persia) and adjacent areas. It apparently was unknown outside its native land until about the beginning of the Christian Era. Even then it was unknown to the Greeks and Romans.

The earliest record of spinach is in Chinese, stating that it was introduced into China from Nepal A. D. 647. Old writings indicate that it reached Spain about A. D. 1100, having been brought from North Africa by the Moors. They in turn probably got it by way of ancient Syria and Arabia.

The prickly-seeded form of spinach (still grown today) was known in Germany in the 13th century and by the 14th century it was commonly grown in European monastery gardens. A cookbook of 1390 for the court of Richard 11 contained recipes for spynoches. Smooth-seeded spinach was described in 1552.

It is not known when spinach was first brought to America, but it was doubtless in early colonial times.