It’s hard to love ugly food. I’m not talking about twisted carrots or other organic masterpieces, I’m talking about things like stewed peas. Traditionally served with fish and chips, mushy peas are made by boiling marrowfat peas with bicarbonate of soda. The result is a thick pea soup, a divisive extra served alongside England’s most famous dish.
As a child, I didn’t want to eat anything green. I was the “no salad” kid, afraid of garnishes and burger pickles. I wanted meat and bread only. If I couldn’t be lured by things as inoffensive as lettuce, as beautiful as a ripe tomato, then grey-green mushy peas were definitely out.
It took a long time for me to learn to love vegetables, but I was fixed by my mid-teens. Taught by my mother and TV chefs, by the time I was 15 I was cooking the dinner, ensuring it was ready for when my mum got home from work; my shift at school finished a few hours before hers in the factory.
Five years ago, in my early 20s, I moved to London from Manchester. The north/south divide is real in England and where I’m from this is a much-derided move. My dad still hasn’t been to the capital, mainly because he’s scared of the Underground system, which is weird because he’s worked on the railways most of his life.
In London, it’s not the ‘chippy’ or fish and chip shop that’s king, it’s the pie and mash shop—a place you traditionally won’t find mushy peas. It’s not that they’re not welcome in London, they’re just not so well understood. Much the same way, I had to learn quickly to speak clearly here and not to react when people do my accent back at me, badly.
Chip shops and their offerings are a marker of the cultural divide between the north of England and the south. When I first moved one question came up repeatedly, “They don’t do gravy down there, do they?” This is true. London chippies generally don’t do gravy, but you can get mushy peas.
I talked peas with another northerner in London, Craig Carmichael, a brewer at Pressure Drop brewery, who identified Nottingham as the home of mushy peas. In his university days, Craig attended the centuries old Goose Fair in Nottingham to find that instead of hot dogs and burgers, people were chowing down on cups of mushy peas with a dressing of malt vinegar or mint sauce.
This new information made me realize that there must be something great about this ugly pea stew. My long-held view, and one shared by my cooking mentor, chef Michael Richardson, was that mushy peas are essentially a work of lunacy—ruining the best things about peas; the color, the texture and the fresh flavor. Richardson fully hates the dish, despite being from Derby, less than 20 miles west of Nottingham.
Was I still wrong about this green food even though I’m 30 years old now, and make most of my cash from cooking? I made a step into a more delicious world only very recently, when I took my wife and her younger brother out for dinner at a fancy fish and chip shop. I’d just gotten a job at a new little café and restaurant and had money for the first time in a long while. We ordered mushy peas with our various bits of fried fish. When the food arrived I still wasn’t sure.
“I don’t understand your problem—you love peas, and this is just pea dip for your chips. Think of it as a condiment,” said my wife Penelope. Those wise words helped change my mind. I dipped freely and understood for the first time. Now they’re as essential as tartar sauce; they help make chips interesting.
Since then I’ve followed up by checking out the official serving recommendation, eating them by the spoonful with vinegar or, better still, mint sauce. This strange, vinegary condiment makes mushy peas spectacular. I can barely believe I was so wrong and for so long. I feel more northern than ever; maybe I’ll even get my accent back and tell these Londoners where they’re going wrong.