Most people are familiar with the age-old nursery rhyme:
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold
Pease porridge in a pot, nine days old.
Some like it hot, some like it cold.
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
It’s likely that many have wondered, “Just what exactly is pease porridge?” For that matter, who would like the stuff after nine days in the pot?
Quite simply, it is a form of the dish that most people today call split pea soup. In Britain and elsewhere, dried pease, or peas, were added along with various seasonings to water and hung to simmer in a kettle over a fire. Vegetables were added as available, and sometimes the porridge was flavored with bacon or salt pork. At the end of the day, the soup cooled and thickened, remaining in the pot to congeal. Eaten cold and thick the next morning, water and additional vegetables might be added, to thin it out and extend it for that day’s meals, and so on for the next day and the next. It’s conceivable that the porridge in the pot would indeed be a few days old by the time it was finished off, or finally given up on and fed to the pigs.
Today, the split pea soup that warms the body and soul on a chilly winter’s day is not that much different from its old English cousin, albeit fresher. Flavored with ham hocks, onion, and carrot and celery, split peas are boiled with seasonings in water or stock until they soften, then the soup is pureed. The modern version is also usually much less viscous than the version of the 16th and 17th centuries, and it might have more in common with the hot pea soup sold by enterprising Athenian street vendors in the period from 500 to 400 BCE.
Alternate forms of pease porridge, thicker than soup, can still be found in modern cuisines throughout the world. Pease pudding in China is a warm dessert featuring sweetened, fried pea puree. Regional U.S. variations flavor cooked mashed peas with butter; spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves, or pepper; onions; celery; and bacon or ham. These puddings are then baked until firm.
Split pea soup is appreciated now for the same reasons early versions were popular enough to merit immortalization in verse: dried peas are nutritious, inexpensive, easy to store, and they pretty much cook themselves. All a cook needs is a little clean water, a sprinkle of salt, a large enough kettle, a heat source, and a stirring spoon.