Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Peaches and Cream

Yesterday morning I got a polite request for a new post from my excellent friend and most faithful reader, Cheryl. Please! I've been out of town and then swamped with my son's birthday party, farmers' market business, and other stuff you don't want to hear about. I'm not one of those intrepid bloggers who posts from her Blackberry--I'm a blogger who eats blackberries. However, it's nice to know someone is actually looking in on me from time to time. That said, it's time to get back in the saddle. At the Memphis Botanic Garden's farmers market yesterday I loaded up on blackberries, blueberries, beautiful summer squash, tomatoes, chiles, sweet onions, pecans, peaches, and bicolor zucchini so fresh it squeaks. Some of the tomatoes in these photos are actually from our garden, and I can't resist showing you my son Gus's first Patio tomato, grown on his own plant. The flavor is pretty good, considering that our deck doesn't get loads of light. Now, as I reported back in early June, local Derby peaches are available at the markets here in Memphis already. But in general, I've been abstaining until my peaches ripen. I emailed Henry Jones to see if my girls were ready yet, and he replied in sports similes: "They are bigger than golf balls, but smaller than baseballs. They are dark green. They should be ready in about 2 weeks."

So I'm sticking with berries for now, but I had to buy some peaches to make ice cream for a dinner I'm making on Sunday. My son's Montessori has a silent auction every year, and I did one of those dinner-for-8-in-your-own-home donations. I'll be serving chilled cucumber soup (made with buttermilk--finally some buttermilk in this blog!), tacos filled with carnitas or Pollo a la Brasa, and peach ice cream. So the peaches aren't for me. Although I'll have to do a little tasting. Seems like the right thing to do, doncha think? I'll post the ice cream as soon as I make it.

Meanwhile, I've been cleaning out the closets and trying to declutter. Intending to put it away in a box under my bed, I opened up a frayed little binder that's been sitting on a table in my bedroom.
It's my great-grandmother Verde Clark Graff's recipe book, filled with her tiny upright script (her handwriting has posture as good as hers was). In it, a peach recipe as pure and simple as you'd expect of a woman born in 1896, whose tastes arose from a midwestern small-town girlhood but whose domestic habits were forged in the crucible of the Great Depression. My great-grandfather was in the steel business, so my Gigi (short for great-grandmother) wasn't exactly facing deprivation, but her little book bespeaks an orderly thrift uncommon in our age of plentiful food and scarce time. (Of course, the era of plentiful commodities might be winding down now. It's heartening to read that so many more people are raising vegetable gardens this year, but discouraging to think that many of our neighbors who need affordable and accessible produce the most don't really have the time or resources to grow their own. The domestic habits of planning, cooking, and keeping records seem all but lost. Without those habits, feeding a family real home-grown or home-made food is difficult at best.)

By the time I knew her, Gigi was a rather fancy old lady, but I like to picture her sitting at her desk and writing out these recipes. I know I'm romanticizing it, but the activity seems so meditative and trusting. There is time, there will be time, it seems to say.

However, this peach recipe seems to be in a more hasty hand than some of her others. Reality is, the peaches are only in season for a couple of months.

Here is a direct transcription of the recipe from Gigi's notebook. I'll be testing it soon; I think we might need some clarifications for the modern cook, don't you? I'll have to look into what it'll mean for the syrup to snap, and we'll have to see if a bottle of cream is a pint. But peaches, butter, sugar and cream? How can we go wrong?

Peaches--Pauline Kellogg
8 large peaches
2 c. sugar
1/4 c. water
1/4 c. butter (size of a walnut)

Melt all--add fresh peaches. Cook in skillet covered with skillet. When peaches are tender, take out. Let syrup boil until it almost snaps. Pour in bottle of whipping cream (not whipped). Pour over fruit. Let get cold.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Utopia of Peaches

Some years ago, my dad and stepmom gave me a charming framed botanical illustration of a Lizzie Peach for Christmas. (No one else does anymore, but they still call me Lizzy.) The print hangs on my dining room wall, unmarred by Bill's name. (Unfortunately, I'm not quite savvy enough to get a clean version of the print up here, but you can see her blushing sweetness anyway. ) I was looking at it the other day and thinking about the fact that there was a "Lizzie Peach." What other names might be out there?

So many names! So much imagination--not just mere descriptors, such as "Delicious" or "Redskin." The old names were personal, and eaters had personal relationships with their fruit. Imagine a world in which the supremacy of the peach could be defended on the grounds that to praise it is to “gild refined gold.” Now, imagine a society in which the following defense of the peach would be coherent to anyone but the most freaky-geeky foodies:
If any one doubts the precise rank which the peach should take among the different fruits of even that cornucopian month—September—and wishes to convince us of the higher flavor of a Seckel or a Belle Lucrative pear, we will promise to stop his mouth and his argument with a sunny-cheeked and melting ‘George the Fourth’ or luscious ‘Rareripe!’
This world existed once, right here in these glorious United States. But it was 108 years ago, when people got most of their sugar from fruit, I guess, and so devoted the same emotional energy to thinking about peaches and plums and grapes as we do to dreaming of--and naming--Twix Bars and Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk. To be fair, I found this encomium as I researched a bit of drupian history (drupes are the family to which peaches belong, and include almonds, apricots, cherries and plums) in the 1900 edition of Charles and Andrew Jackson Downing's The Fruits And Fruit Trees Of America: Or The Culture, Propagation And Management, In The Garden And Orchard, Of Fruit Trees Generally. So I guess they were writing for an audience of initiates. But still! Have you ever heard of a Belle Lucrative pear? If so, where can I find one? And a George the Fourth peach? Does it wear a powdered wig?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The peach, at least, originated in China but came to the West via Iran, in the Near East. In fact, the name of the peach comes from Persia. (You have to try saying Persia with your mouth full of peach and smiling because it's so good for this to make much sense, but then you'll hear it.) Peaches made their American debut in 1680, and flourished here. In fact, according to the Downings, the States and China are the only countries where peaches are widely cultivated in open orchards (but maybe things have changed in the last 100 years?). Seems that they need our hot summers and chilly winters. (Elsewhere, as in Europe and the Northeast, they do well espaliered against walls, monastery-style.)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We eat peach flesh, but the kernel can be used in a cordial called Noyau. If you can't get your hands on some Noyau and don't have the time to split some pits and distill some, you can steep the leaves in some other brandy and make a passing substitute. You can grow a tree from the pit, according to the Downings, but it's only advisable if you don't plan to espalier. In that case, better to use a dwarf rootstock, such as a plum.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So all parts of the noble peach are useful. In fact, to return to China and my friend Nancie's comment about the Chinese god of immortality, the Downings report that in east Asia the peach has had a status similar to the apple in Western myth: as a fruit with magical and sometimes dangerous power.
The traditions of a peach tree, the fruit of which conferred immortality, and which bore only once in a thousand years—and of another peach-tree of knowledge, which existed in the most remote period, on a mountain guarded by a thousand demons, the fruit of which produced death—are said to be distinctly preserved in some of the early Chinese writings. Whatever may have been the nature of these extraordinary trees, it is certain that, as Lord Bacon says, ‘not a slip or sucker has been left behind.’ We must therefore content ourselves with the delight which a fine peach of modern times affords to the palate and the eye.
Hear, hear.