How far would you travel for the first perfect pea of summer? Would you take a day or two out of your life just for that first taste?
If you would, then you are in Elaine Sciolino’s league. Sciolino, author of La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, is the former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times who writes the “Letter From Paris” column for the paper’s dining section. Her article “Spring Brings Caviar in a Pod,” chronicled the pea’s special place in French culture and cuisine.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You did this article on the French and peas. What brought this about?
Elaine Sciolino: I was never really that much into peas, but one of my friends is sort of Rabelaisian in character -- his name is Jean-Claude Ribaut and he is a food critic for Le Monde. He said, “You know, I’m going to go down to Provence because I have to eat peas.” I thought, “I have to start this new gig with The New York Times, this 'Letter From Paris.' Can I come with you?” He said, “Sure.” It’s the best kind of journalism to have somebody lead you by the hand who really knows the turf and open doors for you.
LRK: So what happened? What did you learn?
ES: We went to a place -- it’s been there forever -- where they have a garden right outside the restaurant. We watched as they picked the peas from the garden, put them into the boiling water and transformed them into magic.
I didn’t know that you could make pea pods edible. I knew about snap peas and snow peas, but who knew that you can take a regular tough pea pod and a sharp knife, skin the inner plastic cellulose out, and the outer heavier skin can become a little boat? You can stuff it in with peas and decorate your plate. It looks like you’ve got pea passengers in your boat.
LRK: And the pods taste fabulous?
ES: The pods taste fabulous. I even went to the green grocer in my neighborhood in the middle of Paris and I said, “I bet I can teach you something.” He said, “You can’t teach me anything about vegetables.” I said, “Did you ever eat a pea pod in your life?” And he said, “You can’t eat pea pods.” I said, “Watch.” And I fed it to him. I felt like Julia Child.
LRK: Who were the chefs that you went to and what were they doing with the peas?
ES: It’s a very old place called L'Oustau de Baumanière. The chef is Pakistani-born and he came to France as a child because his father was in the French Foreign Legion. He was exposed to food in the military mess. He and his brother became chefs. It was wild asking this Pakistani-born guy, “How did you come to love peas?” We started talking about how in his back yard, when he was a kid, they grew okra and eggplant.
They showed me how you can skin a pea. Never in my life did I think about skinning a pea, but it is a very sensual experience. You take a pea that has been plunged into boiling water then plunged into ice water, it comes out, and you take the pea between your thumb and your index finger, and you roll it around slowly and the skin pops out and the pea splits in half. You have this beautiful, skinless, naked pea. It’s not something that you want to do if you have guests coming in a half-hour, but if you are watching “Mad Men” or something, it’s the perfect time to sit there with a bowl and skin peas.
LRK: Then do you just toss it with butter?
ES: Yes, it’s the easiest thing in the world. A little bit of onion, a little bit of carrot, a little bit of pork belly or bacon, a lot of butter -- the butter makes this emulsion with the pea -- and that’s it. You can’t ruin it unless you overcook it. It’s great.
LRK: You are living in the middle of Paris. What is happening now with food there?
ES: You wouldn’t believe what is happening with food in Paris. Paris has gotten brunchified: Every corner bistro seems to have a brunch on Sunday afternoons, so what you are seeing is lots of hamburgers, smoothies, bagel sandwiches, and cupcakes. Philadelphia cream cheese on frozen bagels that are flown in from London. Do you believe it?
LRK: Oh, my Lord. Is the baguette going to be dead?
ES: The baguette won’t be dead, but this is really an invasion of the round-breaded substance.