In the spring of 1969, in Twin Falls, Idaho, Calvin Lamborn, a young plant breeder at the Gallatin Valley Seed company, crossed a snow pea with a thick-podded rogue type pea — yielding a most unusual new plant whose plump pod was as delicious as its little green pearls. Lamborn’s creation would become known as the sugar snap pea. That cult legume — once hailed as the vegetable of the century — turns 50 this year.
Lamborn died in 2017, but Bill Albers, now owner-president of Albers Enterprise, a snap pea seed production and marketing firm, was also in the field on the fateful day in 1969.
“They handed me a pod, and I started to shell it — out of ignorance,” Albers, at the time assistant manager of Gallatin Valley Seed, recalls. “They told me to eat it pod and all, so I reluctantly took a bite.”
Today, we have forgotten how transgressive that first bite would have been. Our cultural amnesia is, in fact, proof of the sugar snap’s rise to dominance.
Built up from nothing only 50 years ago, sugar snap peas are now an international, multi-million-dollar industry. The total fresh sugar-snap market in the United States is currently valued at $153 million, according to Mann Packing Company (a division of Del Monte Produce), which controls 51 percent of the market. Maine-based seed purveyor Johnny’s Selected Seeds, whose customers include small-scale commercial farmers as well as home gardeners, now sells more sugar snap seed than any other type of pea.
Like many of humanity’s great inventions, the sugar snap pea cleaves history into two distinct eras.
I was born in 1986, squarely in the post-sugar snap age. This means, among other things, that I’ve never had to shell a single pea.
“My dear, you have missed an experience,” Bonnie Lamborn, Calvin Lamborn’s widow, told me.
Born in 1943, she grew up in Shelley, Idaho, where her father grew shell peas in the family garden.
“I would sit under the elm tree in the front yard in the shade and shell them,” she recalls. “I would just have a bucketful all shelled, and here came Dad with another bucketful.” She laughed at the memory of the Sisyphean chore.
My own food-obsessed, millennial set has so fully embraced romantic visions of kitchen labor that everywhere one reads of the great pleasure of cooking: the joy of chopping and frying and roasting and basting; the true ecstasy of dinner prep in the upper-middle-class kitchen. Rarely do we read of work.
Looking back, I suspect that for an earlier generation of American women — who, after all, did most of the pea shelling and pea cooking and pea serving — the sugar snap must have been a liberation.
Even the 1950s English food writer Elizabeth David — usually a true friend to veg, and not shy of kitchen work, either — once confessed that “shelling peas is certainly a good deal of trouble.”
Bonnie Lamborn, who refers lovingly to the sugar snap as “really quite a nice little vegetable,” has not shelled a single pea since 1969.
“After they were invented, I never went back to the old English pea,” she admits.
Her children grew up in a new world where pea pods were edible.
Rod Lamborn, now CEO of Magic Seed, a company started by his father in 1997, remembers his first, confusing, childhood encounter with a conventional shell pea at a neighbor’s house.
“I couldn’t understand why you just couldn’t eat the pod,” he recalls.
“I eat the pod,” he’d protested at the time. “We eat the pod.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” the grown-ups had insisted.
“It definitely was a revolution,” he told me by phone recently. “The idea of eating the pod . . . really kind of changed the system.”
Everyone did not, it turned out, want to join the revolution. During the sugar snap’s long development before commercial launch, resistance was institutional, as well as cultural.
“Our biggest opponents were our own upper management,” Albers recalls. “People wanted the research department to focus on the real bread-and-butter breeding programs of peas and beans for canning and freezing. That was the company’s business.”
In 1979, when the sugar snap was finally introduced to America, it caused a national sensation. The York Daily Record of Pennsylvania raved, “New pea almost as sweet as candy.” “So insipid a comparison,” argued the food critic at The New York Times, “does not do justice to the sophisticated verdant flavor of this new vegetable.” For The Washington Post it was “a super legume . . . [that] might revolutionize children’s attitudes towards vegetables,” and, furthermore, such a sweet feat with “only three calories in each pod — less than conventional peas.” By the end of its first growing season, the sugar snap had been “a rage across the U.S.,” according to one Canadian writer.
There have been many other varieties since — including a now ubiquitous stringless pod that Mann Packing stocks at Star Market, 7-Eleven, Walmart, and Target, among other places — but for Rod Lamborn no subsequent snaps have ever matched the first for flavor.
His father had once told The New York Times the luxury of breeding for flavor was part of what made his new pea unique.
“You can’t breed for everything at once,” he’d told the Times, “and flavor is usually what is considered last.”
Not so with the original sugar snap.
Bill Albers still remembers his reaction to that very first bite.
“Jesus Christ, this tastes good,” he’d said that day. “This tastes like a fruit. Kids will love it.”
“And it was true,” he told me 50 years later.
Gene Tempest can be reached at email@example.com.