Food in Fiction: Hot Peas and Vinegar in ‘Two Gallants’

James Joyce Coloured 2

The addition of a condiment can sometimes turn an insubstantial side into a hearty supper. In James Joyce‘s ‘Two Gallants’, Lenehan stops at a shop for something to eat:

‘He paused at last before the window of a poor-looking shop over which the words Refreshment Bar were printed in white letters. On the glass of the window were two flying inscriptions: Ginger Beer and Ginger Ale. A cut ham was exposed on a great blue dish while near it on a plate lay a segment of very light plum-pudding. He eyed this food earnest for some time and then, after glancing warily up and down the street, went into the shop quickly.

He was hungry for, except some biscuits which he had asked two grudging curates to bring him, he had eaten nothing since breakfast-time. He sat down at an uncovered wooden table opposite two work-girls and a mechanic. A slatternly girl waited on him.

–How much is a plate of peas? he asked

–Three halfpence, sir, said the girl.

–Bring me a plate of peas, he said, and a bottle of ginger beer.

He spoke roughly in order to belie his air of gentility for his entry had been followed by a pause of talk. His face was heated. To appear natural he pushed his cap back on his head and planted his elbows on the table. The mechanic and the two work-girls examined him point by point before resuming their conversation in a subdued voice. The girl brought him a plate of grocer’s hot peas, seasoned with pepper and vinegar, a fork and his ginger beer. He ate his food greedily and found it so good that he made a note of the shop mentally. When he had eaten all the peas he sipped his ginger beer and sat for some time thinking of Corley’s adventure. In his imagination he beheld the pair of lovers walking along some dark road; he heard Corley’s voice in deep energetic gallantries and saw again the leer of the young woman’s mouth. This vision made him feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit. He was tired of knocking about, of pulling the devil by the tail, of shifts and intrigues. He would be thirty-one in November. Would he never get a good job? Would he never have a home of his own? He thought how pleasant it would be to have a warm fire to sit by and a good dinner to sit down to. He had walked the streets long enough with friends and with girls. He knew what those friends were worth: he knew the girls too. Experience had embittered his heart against the world. But all hope had not left him. He felt better after having eaten than he had felt before, less weary of life, less vanquished in spirit. He might yet be able to settle down in some snug corner and live happily if he could only come across some good simple-minded girl with a little of the ready.’

Earlier in ‘Two Gallants’ – the sixth short story from James Joyce’s Dubliners, which was finally published in June 1914 after a string of rejections, some specifying the content of ‘Two Gallants’, extending back to 1905 – Lenehan has been described as ‘squat and ruddy’, with a light waterproof slung over one shoulder, breeches, white rubber shoes, and a bit of a belly. He is thirty years old, but his youthful attire is belied by his body, by thinning and greying hair and a face that tends in repose to show waste.

We are told that most people consider Lenehan ‘a leech but, in spite of this reputation, his adroitness and eloquence had always prevented his friends from forming any general policy against him’. He will appear again in Ulysses, in ‘Aeolus’, ‘Wandering Rocks’, ‘Sirens’, ‘Cyclops’, and ‘Oxen of the Sun’. Always ready with an obliging word and a witty aside, punning in the office of the Evening Telegraph, impatiently awaiting Blazes Boylan in the Ormond Hotel, contriving with the pub dwellers in Barney Kiernan’s, or tagging along with Dublin’s young medical students, Lenehan is connected with the world of horse racing, and with the theme in Ulysses of the throwaway and the day’s Gold Cup.

But beyond his conversational eloquence, beyond his scheming towards an easier life and his ability to always wrangle a free drink, Lenehan also possesses an eloquent sensibility, an acute capacity for feeling. In ‘Wandering Rocks’, he and M’Coy have been joking at Bloom’s expense, as Lenehan recalls fondling Bloom’s wife Molly in the back of a coach as Bloom sat in the seat opposite and pointed out the stars in the sky. Then their conversation comes to a pause:

‘M’Coy’s white face smiled about it at instants and grew grave. Lenehan walked on again. He lifted his yachtingcap and scratched his hindhead rapidly. He glanced sideways in the sunlight at M’Coy.

–He’s a cultured allroundman, Bloom is, he said seriously. He’s not one of your common or garden … you know … There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom.’

And in ‘Two Gallants’, on Dublin’s Kildare Street, Lenehan is affected by the melancholy playing of a harp:

‘Now that he was alone his face looked older. His gaiety seemed to forsake him and, as he came by the railings of the Duke’s Lawn, he allowed his hand to run along them. The air which the harpist had played began to control his movements. His softly padded feet played the melody while his fingers swept a scale of variations idly along the railings after each group of notes.’

Still later in the evening when he rejoins his companion Corley, Lenehan is pleased to discover that their swindle has been a success, with Corley managing to seduce a young maid into stealing a gold coin on their behalf.

* * *

Hot peas with vinegar remained a popular cheap meal across Ireland well into the twentieth century. It could be made with garden peas, marrowfat peas, or mushy peas, and was served usually with malt vinegar, though for today’s prospective chef, sherry and balsamic can also work.

In Clinton Heylin’s biography of Van Morrison, entitled Can You Feel the Silence?, the singer’s childhood friend Roy Kane recalled that in east Belfast, Cyprus Avenue:

‘was the street that we would all aspire to — the other side of the tracks. And the other side of the tracks, because the Beersbridge Road had the railway line cut across it; and our side of it was one side of the tracks and Cyprus Avenue was the other… and going back to this Sunday thing, there was an Italian shop up in Ballyhackamore, that’s where all the young ones used to go of a Sunday. Whenever we had finished playing, we used to walk up to the Sky Beam for an ice cream, or a cup of mushy peas and vinegar […] We used to take a short cut up Cyprus Avenue, cause that’s where all the expensive houses and all the good-looking totty came from.’

Meanwhile in Glasgow, even peas and vinegar proved too much. The actress Molly Weir wrote in Shoes Were For Sunday of her childhood growing up, in the aftermath of the First World War, in the tenements of Springburn:

‘In winter, our Tallie went over to hot peas, and no peas cooked at home ever tasted half as good as those bought in that wee shop. A penny bought a cup of ‘pea brae’, which was actually the thickened water in which the peas had been boiled, liberally seasoned with pepper and a good dash of vinegar. There was always the excitement of maybe finding a few squashed peas at the bottom of the cup […] The lordy ones seated at the tables consumed threepenny plates of peas, which made us sick with envy, but when the day arrived when we were big enough and rich enough to spend threepence in one go, I found to my surprise and disappointment that I preferred the penny ‘pea brae’.’

Glasgow evidently continues to ply a trade in hot peas and vinegar, but Weir in her youth gave the practise up after eating a dish and immediately contracting scarlet fever. Times have changed, and now nobody nowhere should refrain from enjoying, like Lenehan, a warming plate of the peas and vinegar of their choice.

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