CONVERSATION and PEAS
H. Allen Smith tells this story about a society event which he yearned to go to
because a great man, who Smith admired, was slated to attend. Of course such an
event was closed to mere commoners like Smith, but, somehow, by luck, he was
offered an invitation. And, much to his astonishment, he ended up sitting at the main
table, right next to the great man. Smith knew this would be his only opportunity to
chat with the great man, but didn’t have the nerve. He settled for keeping an ear
open so that he might catch every golden word that spilled from the great man’s lips.
And, as Smith reports it, the only thing the great man said during the entire event
was, “Peas! I hate peas. I’ve always hated peas! I’ll go to my grave hating peas.”
I was telling this story to my very patient and always-forbearing wife as we walked a
couple of dogs around in her parents’ neighborhood, just as if we might reside there.
That led quite naturally to the story of H. Allen Smith covering a heavyweight
championship bout between somebody else and Primo Canera. In that fight Canera
was beaten so soundly, so severely in the early rounds that the referee called it off in
order to save the poor man’s life. In those days (I don’t know how it’s done these
days), reporters went into the locker rooms after the fight and interviewed the victor
first, and then went over to speak to the vanquished. As Smith tells it, he picked up
the Sports page the next day and there was an interview with the thoroughly beaten
In that interview Canera is quoted as saying, “Yes, he assaulted me with such ferocity
and pursued me with such tenacity that I was forced to finally submit.”… or something
along those lines. Smith said, Pah! Canera couldn’t have strung those twenty words
together if he’d been coached by a Rhodes Scholar for a month. Smith had actually
been in that locker room after that fight and heard that interview. According to H.
Allen Smith, the interview went more like this.
“He hit you pretty hard, Primo…”
“Did you think you’d have a chance to recover between rounds?”
“Will you fight him again, Primo?”
So, I told these stories, in that same order, to my good wife, and pretty much in the
same way I just told them here, while we walked around under the Eucalyptus trees.
And she responded by saying, “I’d like to know who the great man was.”
“The great man?”
“The great man who didn’t like peas.”
“I don’t recall who it was,” I admitted.
“Still, I’d like to know who he was.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because he’s quite right about peas,” she said, “… they’re disgusting and they
contaminate everything else on the plate just by their presence. So, I’d like to find out
who this great man was and look at his work to determine if he was also right about
What a wonderful mind this woman has!
That great man who hated peas was H. L. Menken. And, although I like peas, I am in
complete agreement with him about many things, especially government. My wife is a
Royalist who regrets the French Revolution ever occurred —and, looking at the
general downward trend of French influence and power in the world since those
bloody, senseless events, it’s certainly not difficult to see her point. As for peas, they
were de rigueur for a while in 17th Century France, along with les mouches and
noblesse oblige. My wife however shares the opinion of Madame de Maintenon—
Louis XIV’s morganatic wife—who (according to Francoise Chandernagor, in her
absolutely wonderfully written book, The King’s Way) thought they weren’t a topic
worthy of discussion.
She observed critically:
Today the theme was novel—they were discussing green peas. It was the fashionable
topic: how eager one was to have some, or how delicious they tasted or how one
looked forward to having some more.
So, then we walked the dogs for a bit in silence (my mind delighted but a bit
befuddled, hers ordered and productive no doubt) until my wife mentioned the always-
somewhat-unpredictable chef. Apparently he makes the best paella in the world, and
the first time he made it there were, as the recipe calls for, peas. So, my dear future
wife separated out all of the peas on her plate and moved them into a corner where
they were safely confined. The chef noted that, and in an unpredictably reasonable
gesture, from that evening on, set aside a portion of his paella, without peas, for my
dear future wife.
So, quite naturally, she then asked me how my family’s search for the perfect paella
recipe was going.
That demands some explanation.
The last time I ventured down to Arizona—to attend the award of the Legion of Honor
to my father—I discovered that I didn’t know a damned thing about the several familial
conspiracies that were unfolding down there in the desert. The first shocker was my
parents’ remarkable dedication to professional basketball.
My mother has a heart of gold which has provided her with the buoyancy necessary
to withstand the continual and ever-emerging maelstroms of Life. My father is a good
and honest man, a wonderful combination of common sense, endless caring, and
keen wit. I couldn’t recall a single time when either of them has ever watched a
I do recall however, that when I was a kid, my father once made a snide comment
about the game. “It should be a three-minute long game. Each team starts out with
100 points, and they play for three minutes. That’s what it usually comes down to
anyway. Why not just cut out all that time wasted; make it a three-minute game?”
I took that, pretty much, as a blanket dismissal of basketball. So, I was somewhat
astounded—after not having seen them for several years—when I walked into my
parents’ living room and they were watching a basketball game on television. I was
even more astounded to hear my mother say something like, “I don’t know if they
should keep Billings; his contract is up this season and he’s just not hitting his
shots from outside. If they could get a good buy-out for the remainder of his contract,
they could move Hilbert into that slot; I think he’s really starting to develop.”
My father, with his fingers laced behind his head, nodded. “Yeah, I think you’re
right…” he said casually, “and Hilbert’s better under the rim.”
Naturally, I went right outside to check the house number.
More surprising than my mother’s impressive inside-knowledge of the business-end
of professional basketball —which is weird enough—was the family-wide commitment
to discovering the perfect paella recipe. Apparently, they’d been working steadily,
methodically, conspiratorially, for years, trying to develop the perfect recipe. From the
eager frenzy surrounding the various whispered conversations I happened to
overhear while there, they were getting pretty close. There was still some debate
about the particular type of prawns that should be used and whether the onions
should be scalded first within their skins, but they were all pretty excited about
narrowing in on THE recipe of undisputed paella perfection.
I have to admit, the stuff they served me was pretty darned impressive.
Upon my return home from Arizona, I told my wife about their quest, and she said,
“They don’t use peas do they?”
REFINEMENT: How a Good Marriage Can Nudge an Unwary Man
in the Direction of Civility by Henry Edward Fool