Pease Porridge Hot, Pease Porridge Cold: Nursery Rhymes as a Window into Our Shared History with Dogs

Have dogs evolved to lurk in the kitchen? We can learn more about dog’s evolution, and our own evolution, through the words we pass from grandparent to grandchild as nursery rhymes. 

What we can learn about dogs from nursery rhymes. Photo of a hopeful little dog by the tulips in the sunshine in the garden
Photo: Anna Badi/Shutterstoc

By Kristi Benson, CTC, Special Correspondent

I was splitting then tearing off the soft inner shell from some broad beans earlier today, and I found myself thinking of a nursery rhyme. Pease porridge hot! The broad beans emerged from their light and leathery skins the bright spring-green colour of new growth, a cheerful antidote to the scene out the kitchen window: polar vortex winds sculpting the snow over the gardens into threatening, glassy surfaces. Pease porridge cold. In those very gardens, now tucked away under several feet of granular, mature snow, we grew way too many broad beans last summer. That is, we grew way too many broad beans...again. They’re fussy to eat, with their doubled-up shell, especially when compared to their simpler—if not quite as delicious—leguminous brethren, the good ol’ garden pea. Which we also grew too much of. 


As I was only half engaged with the repetitive task of shelling the broad beans, my thoughts wandered to the peculiarity of the nursery rhyme. There were only a few broad bean casualties to my thoughtless extraction, I swear, and those disappeared immediately off the floor thanks to my ever vigilant janitorial staffers: two of my dogs were at their posts on the kitchen floor, hopeful as always. Pease porridge, if I recalled correctly, was a dish made from peas...but a porridge? Was it for breakfast? It evoked the kind of pre-industrial revolution existence that is blandly, and horribly, recounted in many nursery rhymes. Pease porridge in a pot, nine days old. Hunger, poor sanitation, death by disease, outright starvation...give it a bit of a rhyme, add a simple cadence that makes it easy to remember, and there we have it: the fodder for the linguistic development of young children’s minds! 

Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold: What nursery rhymes (and broad beans, pictured) tell us about dogs' evolution
Photo: Beth Macdonald/Unsplash

With the pot pie I was making set to bubbling in the oven, I looked up pease porridge. Also known, apparently, as pease pudding (which is even more gustatorily discordant, in my mind), it’s a thick paste made from reconstituted dried peas, cooked with lard on top. Not necessarily a breakfast dish, then, I’ll admit. Peas are easy to grow and store well in their dried format, making them a fantastically useful crop if you have no refrigeration and no subsidized global farming industry moving out-of-season fresh foods absurd distances from place to place. Pease porridge in; bagged baby roquette salad greens out. And during the vast majority of the timeline we have existed on earth, humans were, both personally and population-wise, limited by calories: starvation was a real threat. People, especially children, regularly did (and in many places, sadly, still do) die from a lack of food. A dish cooked with a shelf-stable and high-quality form of fat, like lard, is dense with calories. Top off the meal with a paddy cake, baker’s man! And we’ve escaped the looming threat of starvation, for today at least. 

Pease porridge hot: What nursery rhymes tell us about dogs wanting food, like these two dogs watching a man eat from a plate
Photo: Sacha Verheij/Unsplash

Thoughts of starvation led to thoughts of evolution, in the way that thoughts meander. I am the descendent of mammals (humans and our ancestors from before human times) who faced starvation so commonly that our folklore is rife with it; our origin stories riddled with it. It’s no surprise then, is it, that I regularly grow too many broad beans, and too many peas, and too many potatoes. It’s no surprise that deep within the recesses of my mind, there is an instinct to over-produce, and deep within the recesses of my freezer, there are needlessly abundant bags full of produce...did we learn nothing from the grasshopper and the ant, after all? And it is also no surprise that this instinct is given shape by the rhymes and fairy tales that set up the pathways in my brain for how language works, and how I should interact with my environment. 

"As I was only half engaged with the repetitive task of shelling the broad beans, my thoughts wandered to the peculiarity of the nursery rhyme."

The next time you are in your kitchen shelling broad beans (or dressing your salad greens), and your dog shows up for a janitorial shift, consider how familiar their urge to consume is, how this is writ on a page in our own evolutionary memoir, too. Consider how you and your dog are alike for a moment before moaning about how they skulk or loiter or slouch about, hoping for a handout. Dogs are mammals, and as are all mammals, dogs are the product of thousands of generations of evolution in a relentless environment, limited by calories, and dying in droves. Just as those of us who garden may grow too many broad beans, and too many peas, and too many potatoes, and just as those of us who hit the shops after work may buy too many biscuits, and too many heads of broccoli, and too many bricks of’s entirely natural for dogs to seek food, no matter how many bowls of kibble they have inhaled. For the clever and persistent scavengers we’ve invited into our homes, it doesn’t really matter what you’re making: dogs like it hot, dogs like it cold, dogs like it in a pot, nine days old. 

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