Shelling peas is the pinnacle of simplicity and purity, which is probably why Thornton Wilder suggested actors in "Our Town" mime the activity. But it's also terrifically dull and tedious work.
Fortunately, only garden peas, sometimes called English peas, require shelling.
Sugar snaps and snow peas are both wholly edible: The French word for both pea types is mangetout, or "eat it all."
Unlike sugar snaps, snow peas are thin-walled and flat. Popular in east Asian cookery, snow peas are also a hit with gardeners, who appreciate their cool weather tolerance and quick maturation. For eaters, there are at least seven more reasons to treasure the snow pea:
1. Until 1979, snow peas were the only edible pod-pea on the market. Snap peas had been grown domestically throughout the 1800s, but seed companies' 20th-century efforts to reintroduce them as "butterpeas" flopped. Then Calvin Lamborn, an Idaho plant breeder, perfected a snow pea cross that boasted large peas and edible pods. The Washington Post hailed the new crop as revolutionary, and James Beard described them as "sensational." "Some folks say sugar snaps taste almost like candy, but that's stretching it a bit," the inventor told People magazine.
2. It's unclear where the snow pea originated. Although the plant's linked with China, one of the Chinese names for the pea is "Netherlands Bean," which suggests a European pedigree.
3. Although snow peas aren't as nutritious as garden peas, they're low in calories and high in vitamins A and C, iron and manganese.
4. Snow peas often figure into chirashizushi, or scattered sushi, a bowl of raw fish and vegetables served for the Japanese New Year and other celebratory occasions.
5. To prepare snow peas for cooking, wash them and trim the ends. That's it.
6. When shopping for snow peas, look for small, undeveloped peas in shiny pods: Snow peas should be harvested long before maturation. Snow peas can be eaten raw, blanched, steamed, sautéed or stir-fried. The key to preparing them is to keep the cooking time short.
7. American eaters typically confine their snow pea consumption to the pod, but the young shoots (called dow miu in China, and tobyo in Japan) and leaf buds are edible too.