Surely they’re the most social of all vegetables — you rarely see or eat just one and they’re happiest out of their shells — canoodling in congenial groups, basking in their perfect orbed greenness, even more resplendent adorned with a buttery sheen.
Thomas Jefferson was certainly onto them. The English or Garden Pea is considered his favorite vegetable, judging by the sheer quantity of pea plantings and number of harvests at Monticello, as well as the amount of garden space regularly allotted to it.
Every Spring, Jefferson and his neighbors had a “First Peas to the Table” contest, a race to see whose peas would be ready first. The winner would host a dinner party, proudly serving his peas to the other contestants. Apparently, Jefferson rarely won, but like his eager friends, fully appreciated the greater prize — honoring a beloved tradition where all could celebrate the joys of gardening and the power of the pea to bring people together.
Since I’ve always been interested in Jefferson’s gardening and gourmandizing, I was happy to see First Peas to the Table by Susan Grigsby and Nicole Tadgell (Albert Whitman, 2012), a lovely story where school children plant a kitchen garden like Jefferson’s and have a pea growing contest of their own.
Especially anxious to win, young Maya gets a head start by planting her seeds according to a tip she finds in Jefferson’s Garden Book. After overwatering them, she’s forced to start over, but eventually sprouts do appear and she’s soon able to transplant the seedlings in the school garden. She feels like quite a champion until she sees good friend Shakayla’s plants — she’s growing ten different types of peas and they’re much bigger.
Despite being fierce competitors, Maya and Shakayla share their excitement and enthusiasm for the project as they chart the growth of their plants in their journals, rejoicing when pea blossoms appear. Shakayla seems the surefire winner until a windstorm damages her trellises. Does Maya win after all, and do she and Shakayla remain good friends?
With just the right blend of history, science, and a warmhearted, engaging storyline, First Peas to the Table is not only a great read, but a wonderful way to get kids interested in gardening. Readers will root for Maya as she experiences up close and personal the life cycle of the pea and has to summon all her patience until she finally gets to pick her first pod. Her pride and joy in this accomplishment, as well as what she learns about friendship, make for a satisfying story with just the right amount of dramatic tension.
I also love how other interesting tidbits about Jefferson’s garden are mirrored in the narrative: the class divides their garden into three sections (Fruits, Roots, Leaves), Shakayla experiments with different pea varieties (Jefferson apparently planted 15 different ones), and all the students keep Science Journals (Jefferson meticulously recorded every detail of his horticultural experiments for most of 50+ years).
Tadgell’s graceful pencil and watercolor illustrations with their botanical accuracy, varying perspectives and interesting details help to clarify basic gardening techniques from seed to edible pea. Classroom scenes featuring ethnically diverse students feel familiar and relatable, and she also includes journal pages showing Maya’s notes and sketches. An Afterword and Bibliography will encourage further study about our third and most gastronomically enlightened President. This is an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable picture book with wide application across several disciplines.
More peas, please!
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FIRST PEAS TO THE TABLE: How Thomas Jefferson Inspired a School Garden
written by Susan Grigsby
illustrated by Nicole Tadgell
published by Albert Whitman & Co., 2012
Picture Book for ages 6+, 32 pp.
Cool themes: gardening, schools, cooking, peas, vegetables, Thomas Jefferson, contests, friendship
*2013 Bank Street College Best Books of the Year
**2012 Children’s Agriculture Book of the Year (Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation)
♥ Check out the cool Teacher’s Guide at the publisher’s website!
♥ Jefferson-era Pea Recipe from The Virginia House-wife by Mary Randolph (1824)
♥ Fabulous peek at page 6 of Jefferson’s Garden Book which mentions peas (love his handwriting)!
♥ For all you grown-up Jefferson/gardening buffs, I highly recommend A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello by Peter J. Hatch, former Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello for 36 years. Beautiful and fascinating!
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This post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts.
*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2012 Susan Grigsby, illustrations © 2012 Nicole Tadgell, published by Albert Whitman & Co., Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.