The best-tasting peas are always fresh from the pod

The canned vegetables of winter were hard to swallow. But it was easy to eat too many of the delicious fresh peas that warm weather brought.

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The four-quart glass bowl was on my left. The tall brown grocery bag was on my right as I sat on the yellow glider on the front porch.

My mission was specific and immediate: to provide a cooked vegetable for the family's dinner that evening.

My assignment was to reach into the bag and lift out a pod filled with green peas, split the pod open, slide my thumb down the inside of the pod, scoop the contents into the glass bowl, and drop the empty pod onto a yellow glider cushion to the left of the bowl.

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When all the pods had been emptied, I'd put them back into the bag, which then went into the garbage can behind the house. Finally, I'd take the glass bowl, now filled with a rolling pile of peas, to the kitchen.

The job was joyous. The first front-porch pea festival of the year confirmed the arrival of warm weather and the end of Canned-Vegetable Season.

When I first became a master pea sheller at the age of 9, vegetables were seasonal and largely local. If you wanted tomatoes during the winter, you ate mealy hothouse tomatoes or, even worse, tomatoes from a can.

If you didn't like those choices, you waited until August or so, when you could eat a real tomato grown in your backyard or on a farm within convenient trucking distance of your neighborhood grocery store. We got cabbage, lettuce, and carrots in the cold weather, along with some other vegetables that traveled fairly well from a state with a mild climate.

But I never saw a fresh peach when it was snowing, as we can now. No plums or nectarines. The only juice that ran down my chin in cold weather came from the glass my mother filled each morning by squeezing Florida oranges on a funny little dish with a raised fluted cone in its middle.

Each time I heard the whooshing sound of a can of vegetables opening, I knew I wouldn't like whatever came out.

It was a long time before I discovered fresh asparagus and instantly loved it, along with the fresh versions of many other vegetables.

I thought that canned peas – which were missing their true sweetness and compelling aroma – had the consistency of soggy soap balls. Even the color was wrong: a grayish-green never seen on a vine of ripened pods. But the peas in the grocery bag on my porch were different: crisp, bright, and smelling of the warm, green field where they'd grown.

A challenge was to get at least as many into the four-quart glass bowl as I got into me. I loved their sweetness. They tasted the way I imagined sunshine would taste if you could eat it. It was hard to stop eating them.

Before I knew about world records, I kept my own. I counted the peas in each pod. Eight was good. Nine was impressive. Ten was excellent. Twelve was remarkable. Thirteen, 14, or 15 was sensational. I got 14 only once. I'm still waiting for a pod with 15.

Someone told me that the peas we shell are called English peas because they originated in England. It turns out he was wrong.

We just called them peas. When I handed the bowl to my mother, I'd say, "Here are the peas." She'd look down at the contents of the bowl. "I thought there'd be more. Did you shell them all?"

"I did," I'd answer. "And I put all the empty pods in the grocery bag and took it out to the garbage can. These are all the peas."

"All the peas?"

"Well ... almost all."

"Maybe you ate some?"

"Some."

She never asked how many peas there are in a "some." I think she understood the craving that pea shelling presented to a 9-year-old. I suspect she bought twice as many peas as she really needed for dinner.

Now, whenever I shell peas, I don't use a bowl. I remove the peas from their pods and put them directly into my mouth, which is what I'd like to believe the farmer had in mind as he sowed their seeds in that warm, green field.

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