Kimberly Ridley Reflects on Her Father’s Agrarian Maine Roots in the New Book “Breaking Bread”

In this excerpt from a book of 70 renowned New England writers, essayist Kimberly Ridley tells how her love of the earth took root in her father’s pea patch.

In a photo that I took of him more than 30 years ago, my father watches over me from his pea patch. The peas are blooming, and he is in his prime: burly in a navy-blue baseball cap, green polo shirt, and jeans, his arms as brown as the ground he works. His expression is serious, unusual for a cheerful man who loved to joke around and sing Willie Nelson tunes, a man whose standard response to “How are you?” was “If I was any better, I couldn’t stand it.”

This was especially true when he had his hands in the dirt, as he did every spring and summer afternoon after filling potholes and digging ditches all day for the state highway. Peas were the first seeds he planted after the interminable winter. If you want peas on the Fourth of July, plant them on Patriots’ Day in April, he always said, when the maples bloom and the first wood thrushes return to southern Maine.

I don’t remember the first time I helped my father plant peas, but I was surely young, maybe six or seven. Following along behind him, I mimicked his gestures, strewing wrinkled pellets into shallow furrows, then gently tamping soil over them with my small, bare hands, my fingers stinging with cold.

After the peas bloomed in June, we kept a close watch on the pods. One day, they were flat, the next swelling with tiny peas, which could get away from you fast and grow big and mealy, the sugars turning to starch.

We picked the first pods when they yielded to a gentle squeeze, and the peas inside were the size of a baby’s first teeth. “That’s a nice mess of peas,” my father would say after we filled a basket.

Preparing peas became a ritual. We fetched a pot and sat at the round oak table on the screened porch, where my father showed me the secret to shelling them: gently press the curved end of the pod with your thumb until it pops open. Turn the pod with the pointed end facing down and run your thumb along the inside so the peas plink into the pot. There was no rushing this, yet with time, my fingers grew nimble and efficient.

After we filled the pot with green pearls, we covered them with water, boiled them for one minute, then drained and served them in a white china bowl with at least two tablespoons of butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Our family feasted on steaming bowls of peas. That first mouthful. Oh! Here was something that couldn’t be bought. Something worth the wait: tiny, tender orbs of green sweetness, the essence of early summer.

This was the way my father grew up, on a subsistence farm in Springvale, a mile down the road from the little Cape that he and my mother bought to raise my brother and me. We often walked to my Dad’s old home on summer evenings, and I pestered him for stories, like what his family had for supper in the winter. He told me most of it was from the root cellar, and all of it cooked by my grandmother on the kitchen woodstove: red flannel hash, biscuits with salt pork gravy, apple crisp or cake for “afters.”

“Wasn’t it hard to live like that?” I asked my father one evening. I told him I couldn’t imagine growing and preserving most of my own food, cutting firewood by hand, and living without electricity and running water.

“What we didn’t get done one day, we did the next,” he said, laughing. “We never hurried.” He paused. “And we always had time.”

In all of his nearly 85 years, I never recall seeing my father hurry.

The photo of my father in his pea patch sits on my desk in a silver frame. I study his serious expression and wonder what he was thinking that day. As much as I loved him and his stories, he was also a mystery to me, as we humans are to each other, even among beloveds. For years, I was embarrassed when my city friends asked what my father did for a living. I couldn’t understand how he could be content with so little and live nearly all of his life on one small patch of ground in Maine. I have always wanted more of everything, and I’m antsy and seldom content.

This will be my tenth year without my father. I’m a haphazard gardener, but my husband, Tom, and I always plant peas on Patriots’ Day in our own garden in Brooklin, nearly four hours north of my childhood home. On a cool evening in early July, we gather the fragile harvest, filling a basket with perfect pods. We sit on the deck together and shell. A hermit thrush sings, and the late afternoon sun flashes through the spruce woods. After preparing the peas, I pour them into two blue bowls. We eat them slowly. The buttery sweetness bursts in my mouth. I close my eyes. I have time.

Excerpted from Ridley’s essay “A Mess of Peas” in the book Breaking Bread: Essays from New England on Food, Hunger, and Family (Beacon Press, May 2022). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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