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.


  1. I love your comment about the energy that goes into naming candy bars versus fruit. Why indeed do we have Whatchamacallit but just plain ole "apple?" A travesty.

    And I'm having lunch today with two Persian/Iranian friends. I'm going to show off my newfound knowledge of the peach's linguistic roots. I'm sure they'll be very impressed!

  2. I love to look at botanical prints of fruits almost as much as eating peaches, or thinking about this post satisfies on both counts. I have a cherished peach print from Lucca, Italy on my kitchen wall but it doesn't look as luscious as yours do.
    P.S. Thanks for adding me to your bloggity buds.


  3. Go see Kung Fu Panda for a good peach tree moment. When are peaches ripe in New England? Not until the end of August, I fear.