Just Podding Along

'Hurrahing in Harvest" - Gerard Manley Hopkins's ecstatic phrase - is not Monty's. She's booing about that famous gardeners' conundrum: too much all at once.

I really don't have this problem. My first-year plot has wide uncultivated tracts and my shed, a potful of unopened seed packets. But my peas and broad beans are ready, and they, at least, have not staggered their ripening.

We oversimplify the seasons. Autumn, for example, is "harvest time." But harvesting belongs no less to late spring, early summer, high summer, late summer, to all the permutations of fall - AND winter. Plus, the seasons themselves refuse conventionality. This August ("summer") morning was dewy, soft, sun-percolated, autumnal. It felt right for harvesting.

The detail of gardening appeals. Essentially, peas and broad beans are similar, producing pods from which humans steal the seeds. But peas and broad beans (about the oldest cultivated bean known), demand handling, in the process of harvesting, shelling, cooking and eating, as subtly different as, say, carrots and spinach.

Broad beans are sturdy stemmed. The beans are cosseted in rather hefty pods, lined with soft felt. A removed bean leaves a concave impress where it rested. It might not be at all bad comfortwise being a broad bean in its pod. The beans themselves, though, look a bit cloddish, like a bean inventor's first attempt. Hardly refined. But, picked at the right moment (when, Big Ted says, the pods have a kind of shine to them), broad beans have, boiled or steamed, a delicacy of flavor at odds with their appearance.

Peas, though, have designer pods - more efficient than cozy. Open a well-filled pod and the tight rows of peas grin at you like teeth. If you separate the two halves of the pod, you see that the structure is like a zipper, every pea down one side provided with its own gap between the peas opposite. The broad beans, primitive lot, are much more casual in their sleeping arrangements.

It is when it comes to the shelling of broad beans and peas - with which I have lately been getting somewhat familiar - that their contrasting identities emerge. The large bean pods you have to virtually rip open, twisting vigorously in several places. The pale-skinned treasures only deign to disclose themselves after much awkward rending.

The peas - ideally - are rather satisfactory characters to pod, involving intricate thumb-play. Doing a bowlful in the kitchen yesterday, I suddenly was aware of the sound of pea-podding. Your thumb presses the end where the flower, not the stem, once was. There follows a quiet "Pop!" You pry the pod open - "Zeep!" You run your thumb through the peas - "Brrrp!" And with a percussive pittering noise so soft that it would by no means disturb a dozing cat, the peas tumble onto the growing pile.

I SAY "ideally" because all pea pods and their contents are entirely idiosyncratic (decidedly giving the lie to the simile "as like as two peas in a pod"). They respond in a variety of unpredictable ways to the intrusive thumbs. I'll mention three: (1) The pod is packed so solid with peas that it refuses to pop open when pressed. (2) The peas simply will not leave the pod in a neat sweep, but jam and scrape unobligingly. And (3), one rogue pea fires out of the pod like a bullet, flies across the room, and vanishes. That one cannot be found. It is waiting to be squashed flat by your foot 3-1/2 hours later, just when you've forgotten all about it. Maybe, after all, it's a better end than boiling and freezing?

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