Snap Pea Sensei
Carolyn Jung - September 2014
Thirty-five years ago, Calvin Lamborn matched A with B and wound up with the world’s first sugar snap pea. He’s still at it, bringing to light a bushel of kaleidoscopic peas and leaves that make chefs swoon.
At 80 years old, Calvin Lamborn would not be faulted for riding into the sunset. Instead, he is rumbling determinedly into a fierce morning sun atop a marvelous invention that gives his legs a bit of a respite—a two-seater electric chair he cobbled together from dirt bike tires, wheelchair parts, and a couple of bright yellow umbrellas to shade against the scorching summer heat in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Lamborn may still be fit as a fiddle, but he likes to show off the contraption to visitors as a symbol that he’s in it for the long haul. As if there were any doubt. Stopping now and then, he disembarks to get a closer look at the lushly planted rows he’s nurtured. Because here in what’s known as the Magic Valley, his Magic Seed company has created something, well, rather magical.
On four and a half acres, Lamborn has planted more than 200 types of snow peas and snap peas—startling ones the colors of butter yellow, maroon, deep purple, and, the newest, in chile pepper red. There are frilly, tiny pea leaves that grow on plants as poufy as French poodles, their flavor so intense they command a jaw-dropping $36 a pound at New York City’s Greenmarkets. Then, there are the overmatured 52s, rocking the world of chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten because they’re so sweet they taste nearly candied. It doesn’t take long to see that this is more than a field of dreams; it’s his field of triumph.
“I go out and sit in my field each day,” says Lamborn, dressed in his trademark plaid shirt, dungarees, and suspenders. “And I’m in my glory. Life is good when you’re making things better.”
In a valley that got its name after dams constructed on the Snake River turned this once-parched area fertile, this fabled plant breeder is doing just that. A man who was discouraged from applying to college because of a learning disability and who was forced into early retirement by a down-sizing seed company, Lamborn not only went on to earn a Ph.D., but to build his own thriving business. You may not know his name readily, but you’ve sampled his handiwork in countless stir-fries, spring salads, and children’s lunchboxes. A bona fide pea pioneer, he’s the man who created the first commercial sugar snap pea in 1979.
It became an immediate hit, making the covers of seed catalogs and winning honors. James Beard wrote glowing newspaper stories about the sugar snap pea, calling it nothing short of sensational. Today, Lamborn estimates, more than 150 million snap peas are consumed annually around the world.
In a day and age when industrial farms grow for uniformity and volume, often with the help of GMOs, Lamborn is creating new breeds for flavor and uniqueness the old-fashioned way, painstakingly with tweezers, transferring the pollen from one variety to another, then replanting the seeds successively one generation after another, all the while combining the desired traits from the additional genetic lines to get to what he envisions. At a time when chefs are all about farm-to-table, Lamborn is getting them to delve even further—into seed to table.
Carmen Quagliata, executive chef of Union Square Cafe in New York City, still remembers the first time he laid eyes on Lamborn’s vivid snap peas at the Greenmarket stand operated by Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm, the only farmer in the country growing them. “I must have thrown out an expletive,” says Quagliata, with a laugh. “I remember one that looked like a palomino horse that was purple with yellow splotches. The first time I saw the Lamborn mini pea leaves, I had to ask what they were. It’s a leaf like I’d never seen before, with a nutty, sweet flavor.”
Chefs aren’t the only ones befuddled at times. Wylie Dufresne of wd~50 in New York City may be renowned for transforming ingredients with modernist techniques, but he prefers to leave the Lamborn products as they are to preserve their freshness and bright hue. That’s why he got such a kick from online comments criticizing his riff on steak béarnaise, in which traditional green beans were swapped out for Lamborn’s dark purple snap peas.
“People wrote that they couldn’t believe we were serving burnt snap peas,” Dufresne says. “Which is impossible, of course, since they were raw.”
Another New York City chef, Jonathan Benno of Lincoln Ristorante, garnishes seared big eye tuna with the snap peas and adds tender peas to strozzapreti with lobster and scallop sausage. At The Breslin, the 52s are even infused into vodka to create a specialty cocktail. Union Square Cafe likes to showcase the sugar snap peas, raw or barely blanched, julienned into a slaw, then mounded with pancetta, mint, and Pecorino.
Dufresne was the first chef to start using Lamborn’s products in New York City seven years ago, thanks to an unexpected but fortuitous visit by a neighbor who lived on the same street as wd~50—Rod Lamborn, Calvin’s son, a cinematographer who has been helping spread the word about his father’s work. “Rod just showed up at the door, which I normally respond negatively to,” Dufresne admits. “I didn’t know at the time that I should have rolled out the red carpet. I didn’t realize his father was pea royalty.”
Dufresne didn’t know until he offered to put Rod in touch with Bishop, a farmer whose stellar products he’s purchased for 20 years. At first, Bishop didn’t recognize the Lamborn name, either, until Rod told him his father created the Sugar Ann. Named for one of Calvin Lamborn’s daughters, it’s arguably the most popular sugar snap pea variety grown, and a favorite of Bishop’s. Since that introduction, Bishop has grown nine Lamborn products over the past six years. They’re so coveted that he sells out regularly. Some restaurants even send their cooks to Bishop’s stand before it opens to ensure they get their hands on the prized produce.
“Calvin is an artist,” Bishop says. “I’m just a gallery that gets to hang his amazing art. I feel privileged.”
Lamborn’s achievements are all the more impressive when you learn that he struggled so mightily with reading and spelling that he almost dropped out of the 10th grade. Instead, he pushed himself, capitalizing on his strengths to think logically and to perceive what others didn’t. One of seven children and the eldest son born into a farming family, Lamborn’s first memory of peas was as a child, growing up on a small Utah sheep ranch. He’d eat the peas, then poke a stick inside the pod to fashion a little boat that he’d float down the river.
Later, while working for the forestry service, Lamborn started studying botany, gravitating toward plant breeding, because he found the process so satisfying. He was hired by the Gallatin Valley Seed Company in Twin Falls, where he worked to make snow peas straighter and smoother, because they tended to grow curled or bent. He decided to cross a snow pea with a rogue tight-fitted pea pod that had thick walls, surmising that a sturdier structure might make the snow pea pods straighter. “It was the first cross I made based on my own hunch,” he recalls. It was a doozy.
Bill Albers, who was then assistant to the CEO at Gallatin and who is now Lamborn’s business partner, ate one and declared, “It tastes more like a fruit than a vegetable, and children will love it.” That was when Lamborn knew he had something special on his hands.
“He sort of revolutionized the pea industry,” says Rob Johnston, a plant breeder and founder of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, which has been selling the seeds for Lamborn’s sugar snap peas since they were developed. “Calvin is a renaissance man. He makes it look easy. But there’s a lot behind making it look easy.”
Indeed, it took Lamborn 10 years to perfect that first sugar snap pea after he made the first cross in 1969. It took more than 100 crosses for him to develop the first stringless snap pea. If a plant breeder can develop one new variety out of 100 crosses, Lamborn says, that’s an achievement.
Lamborn ended up departing that company after it was bought by a larger firm intent on laying off personnel. He wasn’t ready to retire at 63. He’s still not.
When he struck out on his own, Lamborn acquired seeds for peas with unusual characteristics from the National Plant Germplasm System, which aims to preserve the genetic diversity of plants. His success has led other plant breeders to develop their own colored peas. Johnny’s Selected Seeds recently began selling seeds from another company for yellow and purple snow peas.
Although Lamborn’s snow peas and snap peas already survive into early summer in his test field, he’s now working on breeding varieties that are even more heat tolerant and disease resistant. His snow peas and snap peas are easily spotted in a field because they’re bred to be shiny—Lamborn’s trademark—as opposed to others that typically harbor a duller, waxy finish on the vines.
Three years ago, commercial grower Koppert Cress began growing the Lamborn pea leaves in Europe. Last year, Windrose Farm and Coleman Family Farms, both in Southern California, also began harvesting the leaves for retailers and for one neighborhood restaurant, Laurel Hardware in West Hollywood. Both of those farms plan to increase production in order to sell to chefs at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Additionally, this winter, Lamborn will make a limited selection of his seeds available to growers and home gardeners through his website, EatMorePeas.com.
With an eye to the future, Lamborn’s children are now taking on more responsibilities to grow the business. Many of his 20 grandchildren lend a hand in the field on summer breaks. In particular, a 23 year old grandson, Brandon Robertson, is set to follow in his footsteps as a plant breeder, which leaves Lamborn beaming.
“There’s nothing on earth I can think of that I’d have been happier at or more well suited for,” Lamborn says of his life’s work. “It’s a blessed feeling to have something that will last longer than you.”