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Peas and carrots? How to understand flavor with a simple dish

Inside guidance from Ian Cairns.

BY Ian Cairns October 11,2019

I want to serve you a dish.  A very simple one, yet classic, named peas and carrots. End of Story.  

To the average person, Peas and Carrots is not an obscure combination of ingredients, its a staple of our cuisine. You can find this medley of vegetables canned, frozen, part of individually portioned TV dinners, made into chips and sold in health food stores, philosophically quoted in the Academy Award-winning movie Forest Gump, or on the menu at The French Laundry. Whether intentional or not, this idea of peas and carrots is ingrained in our subconscious.  And as prolific as this dish might be, its story is often overlooked. I would like to invite you on a journey to dig a little deeper and discover this wondrous pairing of green and orange, and our destination is Flavortown.

Let’s start at the beginning: The big bang. Actually, the more politically correct terminology is the era of the baby boomers. The culture at this time was to innovate and live lavishly. To do this however, one needs time and resources; and frequently one of those resources put on autopilot was food.  

During this era, people coming home from work were like a hustling college student. Their minds were on a mission and the last thing they wanted to worry about was food. So, they turned to quick and easy alternatives, i.e. innovations within our food industry, particularly, frozen food; and the most popular combination of these frozen food stuffs was in the form of peas and carrots.  I can feel my readers cringing, “Frozen food! Disgusting, preposterous, outrageous…I grow better peas in my garden!” Believe me, as a former student of horticulture and environmental science I understand your angst; but please continue reading.  

To the player -haters of frozen peas and carrots, I hate to say, but those perfect peas you are imagining from your garden are all too ephemeral, and you’ve been psychologically induced into liking them. 

Those peas from your garden are akin to a passionate love affair at the peak of its powers, a bliss point. The moment you decide to pluck the peas from the vine things begin to change. The peas sugars begin to convert into starches and become less sweet, nutritional content diminishes, its cell walls harden, aroma dissipates, and its enticing green luster begins to fade. In fact, the only thing that keeps the flavor from diminishing anymore is your idea of ownership in relation to those peas.   

This is not to say that your peas are bad at all, they might be the best in the world, but not everyone can have them. And if everyone cannot have them how can you truly say they are the best? And, if you we’re to say they were the best, in doing so you’d be discrediting a large proportion of the voting population. 

Now, imagine a man named Clarence Birdseye who understood this predicament, and came up with a solution in the 1930’s to capture your pea romance and spread it across the world? The peas would all be perfectly textured and uniform, at the height of their sweetness, electrically vibrant in a neon green hue, nutritionally analogous to their natural form; and most importantly, your relationship with the pea hasn’t been compromised, only compounded and its feelings spread. His solution: the quick-freezing method. The process of quickly blanching and freezing a mixture of peas and carrots is similar to that of putting someone on ice, a cryo-state. The best qualities of something have been preserved so they can be used at another time.

In a similar ideological aspect to Clarence Birdseye, I believe peak flavor is achieved by a combination of all these psychological and scientific elements in synergy.  But don’t just take my word for it, fact checks me from the flavor gurus and scientists like Terry Acree from Cornell or Charles Spence from Oxford. These Titians currently define flavor perception as the following: what you respond to and personal perception caused by all your senses, motivation, context, and emotion.  

So now that the peas and carrots storybook has been opened, I invite you to take one more look at the seemingly simple dish of peas and carrots.  But this time, do so with the lens of flavor. You might find that at your next fine dining meal or TV dinner, that the name of the dish is akin to a long island iced tea at a TENSE family gathering. The name Peas and Carrots in all its cuteness and approachability could be the buffer in what otherwise might be a very bourgeoise or lackluster experience.

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