My grandmother was not the cuddly type. I was born late in my mother’s life and by the time I arrived my grandmother had given up all hope of any more grandchildren and given away all the baby things. Unlike my friend’s grandparents, my grandmother was a generation older, she did not have cute nicknames like “gamma” or “mee-maw,” she wore hats and gloves not tennis skirts, she did not take us kids to the water-park. Not that Grandmother (as her full appellation was always used), loved me any less, but her affections came mainly in the form of exquisite handmade dresses and little knit sweaters. Most of my childhood was outfitted exclusively in her creations, I owned nary a store-bought item of clothing in favor of her beautifully smocked pinafores, which is probably the reason I don’t much like wearing pants to this day.
I was fairly intimidated by the matriarch of our family, a feeling apparently shared by many adults. There was the time she (quite an expert on plants) marched out of the landscaping committee, saying she didn’t care if they “planted the place in tall corn.” Or the disparaging quotation that landed on the front page of USA Today.
Late in my grandmother’s life, weakened by lymphoma, she resided in an armchair in the sunroom, the television turned to the “Today” show and little caged canaries nearby. I was about eight, my mother had gone off somewhere, and Grandmother sent me into the backyard where she still kept a little vegetable plot behind her stone house. As I gathered pea pods from under the shady leaves, Grandmother yelled directions at me, forcing me to trot back and forth between the garden and the back door every few minutes to hear her more clearly. “Don’t pick those, they’re not ready yet,” and “how are the carrots doing?” Lord knows, I had no clue what a carrot plant looked like, but I did manage to gather a big bowl of satisfactory peas. We sat amid the haze of her Kool’s menthol cigarettes and shelled what seemed like thousands of peas. She told me about how once, when she was in the hospital for a minor procedure, she asked my grandfather to bring her a big bag of peas to shell. To the shock of the nurses, she sat propped up in the recovery room, shelling away. Considering I can barely picture my grandmother without a knitting needle or crochet hook in hand, this made perfect sense.
Spring peas, particularly English peas, are in season for about 2 days each year, and have a shelf life of about .3 seconds. However, there isn’t a spring that goes by that I don’t think of Grandmother’s peas, she died not long afterwards, and that is one of the strongest memories I have of her. Plus, fresh-shelled peas have a taste unlike any other, and this year they went into a delicious little pea and radish salad. The sweet peas, sharp radishes, and creamy feta were made for each other. The surprise was the sprouts, my store didn’t have pea sprouts, so I grudgingly grabbed some brocco-flower sprouts. I’d given up on sprouts long ago, as they are often bitter, go rancid quickly, and bring to mind all sorts of terrible attempts at “health food.” However, paired with a lightly sweet dressing, these were delicious, call me converted. This salad was good enough to grace my lunch box about everyday for the past week, and since I’m not superhuman, I’m pleased to report it’s very good made with frozen peas. Just don’t tell Grandmother.
Shortly after posting, I received this email from a relative: "I do remember one year when Mother was not at home and asked me to pick the peas. It was late in the summer, I think, and I was hot and tired of bending over. Sooo, I just pulled the plants up and picked the peas off of them. . . and that was the end of the peas for that year, anyway!"
Pea, Radish, and Feta Salad
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons honey
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
4 cups fresh-shelled English peas or 1 pound frozen peas
1 bunch radishes, trimmed, halved, thinly sliced
1 cup crumbled feta cheese (about 4 ounces)
3 cups fresh pea tendrils, pea sprouts, or other sprouts (optional)
1. In the bottom of your serving bowl, whisk together the lemon, honey, oil, and dill. Add the sprouts, if using, and toss to coat.
2. Cook the peas in a pot of boiling salted water, about 5 minutes for fresh, slightly less for frozen. Drain the peas and rinse under cold water to cool.
3. Add the peas to the bowl with the radishes and feta cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Toss everything together. Serve.
*Pea sprouts are available at natural foods stores and Asian markets.