Why One of David Rockefeller’s Most Prized Possessions Was a Simple Pea
Last year, Christie’s held an auction of the late David and Peggy Rockefeller’s personal possessions. Rare china, mahogany furniture, paintings, sculptures, and jewelry filled its New York City showroom. The sale netted over $800 million.
One of David’s most prized—and arguably costliest—acquisitions, however, was not included in the auction. For that, buyers would have had to head 30 miles north of Manhattan to a quiet farm in a Westchester suburb.
Pisum sativum “David’s Pocantico Purple” is a cross between a snap and a snow pea that was bred specifically for the scion of the Rockefeller family, the youngest child of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. The variety was created over the course of six years by Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the working farm David created in honor of Peggy, who died in 1996. Each summer, the pea can be purchased for a few dollars a pound at the center’s farm stand or ordered in a dish at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the Dan Barber–run, Michelin-starred restaurant on the property.
The impetus for its creation was simple. “David really liked peas and every year he’d stop by and ask if we had some,” says Algiere. The execution was not. “I had tried purple peas at farmers markets before, but they were always quite fibrous and astringent.”
Algiere called his friend Mike Mazourek, a professor at Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science, and asked him why no one was breeding one that tasted sweet. “He told me it’s because of where the purple color sits,” Algiere said. “All beans and peas have two skins, an upper and lower and when snow peas are bred for color, the purple often falls in the inner layer, making the pea tough and bitter.”
The trick to making the pea sweet, Algiere learned, would be to have the purple appear on the outer layer instead. “But growing a pea-like that would require finding a way to bring forward a rare recessive gene. In other words, kind of like playing the lottery.”
Rockefeller founded Stone Barns with his daughter Peggy Dulany in 2004 by donating 80 acres of the family’s Pocantico Hills estate, renovating several barns built by his father John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the 1930s, and investing millions of dollars in an agricultural research center that would “demonstrate, teach and promote sustainable, community-based food production.”
Herds of cows, sheep, and goats graze its pastures, pigs root out invasive plants in wooded areas, and hives of bees pollinate rows of crops developed using the same centuries-old plant breeding techniques Algiere and his team used to create the pea. Much of it ends up on a plate at Blue Hill.
Barber played a vital role in the creation of the pea by offering taste tests at the restaurant. “Customers would be served two parent peas and be asked to compare it to the offspring,” Algiere says. Finally, they settled on a variety that was both delicious and stable, meaning it would reliably produce similar offspring.
On June 12, 2015, Rockefeller’s 100th birthday, Algiere dropped a bag of peas off at his house and explained they had named the hybrid after him. “David was incredibly generous and supportive of the work we do at Stone Barns, but he was also so humble. A huge smile spread over his face. He seemed genuinely thrilled.”
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors