New Year Peace in a Pot of Peas

New Year Peace in a Pot of Peas

Here we are again. It happens every 365 days, this cyclical passage from old to new. It’s the season to proclaim, resolve and vow—to make amends with each other, our bodies, our minds, our diets. For days, I’ve struggled to extract something sensical from the past 12 months, but I keep winding up stuck in one big, gelatinous muddle. (With nagging guilt for not getting done everything I tried to tackle.)

I saw the best and worst of life in 2010, a yin-yang year of ups and downs. I landed a fellowship in Boulder (spectacular). My otherwise healthy cycling fiend of a husband developed inexplicable, life-threatening blood clots (terrifying). He’s still here; we’re here together (priceless). We’re fighting the autocratic insurance system (abominable). Months before that incident, we lost a Laotian friend, a hero, to a similar medical condition (crushing). But we also witnessed an American hero at work (commendable) and his team’s destruction of a deadly 750-pound bomb (thrilling). We got stuck in Bangkok’s riots (frightful) but survived unscathed (thank God). One of us suffered a cat bite (annoying) and subsequent search for rabies shots across northern Vietnam (distressing). But that same journey led us to a Hmong friend we’d met 10 years before (lovely). Through all of that, we ate lots and lots and lots of Vietnamese, Thai and Lao food (occasionally crapalicious, but mostly ambrosial).

And that’s but a sliver of my year’s extremes. The memories churn in my head as I try to find some honestly, profoundly moving message in the mess.

Then I read the words of a newfound friend and neighbor, a woman who’s hit more highs and lows than I. Andi lost her home in the Boulder fire. And now she keeps a beautiful blog about grappling with wreckage to find hope in the afterward. “Life gives us the agony and the ecstasy, every day, all mixed up, all at once, without our permission,” she writes. “Best and Worst are part and parcel of each other…sorrow and loss are only the flip sides of joy and gratitude.”


Andi is a woman of words and ideas that make a person think. I remember when she told me about “forgiveness Friday,” the one day each and every week she allowed herself pardon for all the misdemeanors and misjudgments, all the work unfinished in the previous seven days. I love that idea. In fact, I’ll make it my New Year’s resolution: to forgive myself. To forget all deeds done and undone that shouldn’t or should have been. To wipe the slate clean for a shiny, new 2011.

Coincidentally, while thinking about that (and faffing about the Internet), I stumble across an old high-school friend. Truthfully, I don’t know her very well after all this time. But she keeps a blog, and through her writing, I can tell we’ve grown more alike than we probably ever were in school. In her year-end post, she asks readers to grab pen and paper and jot down every favorite thing that comes to mind—an utterly simple exercise in finding joy.

So I think about the kitchen, and every little thing that makes me happy there:

My husband, my family, my friends, hot stove, warm bowls, a glass of wine, crushed garlic, ginger, chile, crispy fried shallots, mushrooms in butter and sherry, cornbread with honey, the sound of a mortar and pestle, the scent of a curry paste under fierce pounding, loose-leaf green tea, lemongrass, peas….

My list goes on and on—but I pause and think: everything I have written is in that kitchen, always. Every day, good or bad, I have such things in my life. When I run out of chiles—I can find umpteen varieties just up the road. When I need family—they are here, or just a phone call away. And my friends? I am blessed with many, all over the world. And even when we cannot see each other—due to distance or money or time or tyrannical governments—they are in the kitchen with me.

But… what’s up with the peas?

Well, for one thing, I like them. But a few deeper reasons than that have put them on my list (science I have learned in my fellowship studies). Peas, like all legumes, are miraculous little organisms capable of fixing their own nitrogen—essentially making their own fertilizer. They pluck nitrogen from the air and turn it into food. No other plants can do this. It happens through a remarkable symbiotic relationship that legumes have with bacteria in the soil, in a process scientists are just beginning to understand. This is important because our planet is facing a fertilizer crisis. The past half-century of global agriculture has seen an explosion of fertilizer use—much of it human-made. Recent studies show that we now create more than 400 billion pounds of reactive nitrogen each year. Many farmers—unless they’re using GPS technology that measures precise soil composition and plant needs—dump far more fertilizer on their fields than necessary. All that nitrogen results in in a torrent of runoff, threatening rivers, oceans and our health.

Yet in all that noxious muck, we have peas. Clean little peas, which fix the soil and in so doing, help us fix ourselves. That, to me, says hope and peace.

So, I’m fixing to make a batch of pea soup to ring in a New Year of possibility. I’ll start with my mother’s recipe, and I’ll think of the way her warm kitchen smelled on cold winter nights when I was a child. And I’ll think, too, of the time I made pea soup many winters ago while living in a cottage on a frozen Wisconsin lake that creaked and roared as the ice formed. It sounded like gunshots in the night. But by day, the air was so still, the land so white—it looked like peace incarnate.

The recipe takes 2 cups of split peas, 3 quarts (or less) of water, 1 large onion, 1 cup of chopped celery, 1 ½ cups of chopped carrots, black pepper, bay leaf. It calls for ham shank, but I’ll be using a few strips of bacon, as well as a bit of stock left from our Christmas chicken. I’ll add lots of crushed garlic and fresh oregano from the garden. Maybe a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme. The pot will simmer for a couple of hours.

And on this New Year’s weekend, we will eat peas in hope and peace.

Photo by Jerry Redfern. Read more on Rambling Spoon.

When she’s not running up mountains or sweating through a buggy jungle, Karen Coates covers food, environment, science, health and social issues. She is a 2010-2011 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environ more


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