I could tell she was coming for a fight. I’d been talking to a reader at a book event at the time, and I couldn’t help but notice the middle-aged woman standing behind the guy I was chatting with. She appeared to be wearing some sort of hand-knit shawl, had a bandanna on her head and had decorated her blouse with several buttons sporting some sort of slogan or another on her chest. She practically oozed umbrage as she fidgeted, waiting to talk with me.
The gentleman bid his adieu and I turned to the nice lady, smiling. She never even let me get in a “hello.” How can you POSSIBLY get away with telling people that wild peas are edible? They are HIGHLY poisonous, and EVERYBODY knows it! I finished with my hello.
“Well, ma’am,” — and yes, I absolutely did “ma’am” her — “I’m not sure where you heard this, but wild peas are most certainly not toxic. In fact, I’ve been eating them my whole life.”
She began rambling on and on about neurotoxins and cancer and God-knows-what-else. I let her talk for a few minutes. “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, ma’am. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Bye!”
This encounter was only the most extreme in a series I’ve had concerning my love for wild peas. Out of all the things I wrote about in my first book, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, wild peas — specifically those plants in the Lathyrus clan — were by far the most controversial subject. Whodathunkit?
An odd thing, really. Wild peas are pretty much the same thing as garden peas, Pisum sativum, only much smaller. If you’ve ever eaten the pretty little beach peas, L. japonicus, at their peak, they are even sweeter than the daintiest petit pois. They were possibly the first wild food I ever ate, and are definitely the first wild food memory I ever had.
Wild peas grow all over the world, from the boreal forests to the tropics. At last count, there were nearly 190 species of Lathyrus pea worldwide, and something like 70 in North America. Here in the West lies the greatest diversity of species. You know them, even if you don’t know they are peas. Their flowers are unmistakable, dolled up in anything from white to lavender to blue, purple or even lurid magenta.
So how is it we don’t eat a wild food that looks like one of the most popular garden vegetables in America, which happens to grow all around us? Hard to say.
Those who argue that wild peas are poisonous often point to the “fact” that Indians did not eat them. I am not sure how this myth was perpetuated, but it is patently false. Even a brief look into North America ethnobotany — yes, I am a plant geek and do such things — turns up the following:
- L. japonicus was eaten by all sorts of groups that lived along the seashore, from the Eskimo to the Iroquois.
- L. polymorphus was a common snack among Omaha Indians, as well as a variety of pueblo tribes such as the Cochiti.
- L. gramnifolius was eaten as pea shoots by the Karuk of Northern California.
- L. jepsonii and L. vestitus were eaten by our local Indians here in the Central Valley, the Yokuts and Miwok.
- L. lanszwertii was widely eaten by the Apache.
- L. ochroleucus were (and are) eaten by the Ojibwe in the Upper Midwest; this is a white-flowered pea.
Searching for the origin of this myth, I came across a whole other set of Lathyrus peas — peas that originated in Eurasia but which have naturalized here in America. That pretty pea flower you see above? It’s not native. It is the flower of the Southern European L. latifolus, which can be found in almost every state in the Union, and most Canadian provinces.
You might also come across a wild pea with fuzzy pods. This is the European L. hirsutus. My friend and fellow forager Connie Green has found these in Napa and its environs. If you find a wild pea with pretty red flowers, it will likely be L. cicera, the red pea. It too is a Euro-immigrant. So is the common garden ornamental sweet pea, L. odoratus.
And then there is the elephant in this room of peas, the chickling vetch, a/k/a cicerchia bean or grasspea, L. sativus. I’ve written about cicerchia beans before. I am willing to lay down cash that all this kerfuffle over wild peas being poisonous has its origin with the cultivated L. sativus.
Why? Because there is a speck of truth in what that crazy lady was ranting on about. Can you poison yourself with Lathyrus peas? Yep. You can. It has been made abundantly clear that a diet that hinges on peas of this genus can, over a period of weeks or months, permanently damage the nervous system and cause a wasting disease called lathryism. One peculiar symptom of this disease is that is atrophies your ass muscles. Weird, right? What’s more, the disease seems to affect men, and specifically men under the age of 30, about eight times more often than it does women or older men.
The culprits seem to be a series of amino acids and anti-nutrients — substances that bind to other nutrients in the body to make them undigestible, thereby depriving the animal (you) who ate it of not just the nutrients in the pea, but also from other things you ate. A substance known as ODAP is a particular nasty, but there are other things going on as well.
Scientists, mostly in India, where chickling vetch is widely eaten in excess during famines, have determined that a diet of about 30 percent L. sativus sustained for 3 months or more will probably give you lathyrism — if you are susceptible to it at all. Most people aren’t. “In contrast,” the study showed, “subsistence on a varied diet containing grasspea is apparently harmless, particularly when such a diet includes animal products.”
The best work by a forager on wild peas done to date was in 2004 by my colleague John Kallas of Portland. Nowhere could Kallas find any documented evidence of human poisoning from wild peas. Ultimately, he came to the same conclusion I did: That eating small amounts of wild peas is perfectly safe — so long as you are not allergic to them, and allergies are something no one can predict. “Remember that no food plant in the world today can guarantee 100 percent freedom from any harm, under all circumstances,” he said.
On a less scientific level, I find it fascinating that wild peas appear to have cast a distinct bargain with animals, including us: Eat a little and you’re OK and I’m OK. Eat a lot, so that I cannot reproduce, and you will suffer. Harshly.
So how do you identify, harvest and use wild peas?
First off, look for the flowers. Pea flowers are unmistakable, especially when you have a variety with magenta flowers around. There is another variety with white flowers in the Upper Midwest that’s pretty easy to identify, too. It’s the lavender-flowered ones that can be mistaken for vetch. Vetch is also a pea-like plant, but is only borderline edible, except for the young shoots, which are tasty. Size is one way to tell: For the most part, peas are larger, thicker plants. Also look at the stems, which will have funny little “wings” on the edges and are angular. Vetch stems tend to be round, like any other plant stem.
And, obviously, there will be peas on the plant. Peas “roll,” in that the pods don’t all ripen at once, so you will almost always see both flowers and ripe pods on the same plant.
You can use wild peas at all stages of growth. I like the pretty flowers as a garnish for a dish (they taste like peas), and the young pea shoots are every bit as good as the kind you get at fancy farmer’s markets. As for the peas themselves, I’ve eaten them anywhere from the “snow pea” stage all the way to dry beans.
If you want them at the snow pea stage, you will want to boil your pods in salty water for a good 3 to 5 minutes to soften them; they are not as tender as a store-bought snow pea. Five minutes will soften them, though, and still preserve that vibrant green.
Shelling the green peas is no different from shelling an English pea. A lot of people, Kallas included, dismiss wild peas as too much work for too little effort. No way. I shelled 4 ounces of wild L. latifolus peas in less than 15 minutes. It may not look like a lot, but four ounces, simmered in a little stock and sweet butter, was more than enough to fill me up for lunch.
You can also store dry wild peas and cook them later. But beware: Wild peas fling their seeds to the four winds when completely ripe. You need to pick them when brown and dry, but before the pod twists and pops. Keep them in a warm, dry place in a container that will catch any seeds that are flung by the popping pods. I use a large hotel pan, but one of those cheapo foil roasting trays you get at the supermarket will work, too.
I can tell you that I have eaten wild peas whenever I’ve found them for nearly 40 years. But I can also tell you that I’ve never eaten them more than twice a week, and I usually eat wild peas less than a dozen times a year. At that level of consumption, I see no reason not to wholeheartedly endorse wild peas as a wonderful wild food.
What’s more, wild peas, as much as any food anywhere, highlight one of the defining features of our human biology: We Homo sapiens are designed, over a million years of experience in nature, to eat a little of a lot, not a lot of a little. Good words to live by even today.