Friday, September 23, 2011

A Passion for Peaches

Originally published August 16, 1984

There was a time when we were children. It was called summer and the best part of summer was when the Kitchen Mouse was employed as “delivery boy” and “general taster” at our local Jewish green grocer on the west side of New York City.

Mr. Panzer, the green grocer, explained to the Kitchen Mouse that his system of cost-accounting allowed for about 25 percent of the product to be eaten by the employees.

As most items made their appearances at the green grocer’s bins it was very easy to keep within the 25 percent pilferage allowed by Mr. Panzer, however my craving for peaches usually was enough to send profits spiraling downward. My annual act of larceny sealed my love of peaches forever. Perhaps it is because the best ones I’ve ever eaten were hijacked that I’ve always considered peaches just a bit sinful. More likely, it’s the fact that my conscience tells me anything so incredibly delicious must be immoral.

The Chinese, who have cultivated peaches for over 4,000 years, also considered the peach slightly suspect. They associated peach blossoms with promiscuity and never planted peach trees near a lady’s bedroom window.

From China the peach tree spread westward along the caravan routes through the Mediterranean and then into Europe. The Greeks and Romans prized the golden fruit as a rare and expensive delicacy. The peach arrived in America with the Spanish explorers and has been a summertime treat here ever since then.

Many varieties are now grown commercially, but the two general categories are freestone, which has a juicy flesh, and the firmer clingstone. The story of the first modern freestone peach variety began in 1857, when buddings from a China clingstone peach were sent to a Georgia family named Rumph. The buds were planted and flourished. One day Mrs. Rumph dropped a few of the peach pits into her sewing basket. Years later, when her grandson, Samuel Rumph, wanted to expand his orchard, she remembered the old clingstone seeds and found them in her basket, resting comfortably among the needles and socks that needed darning. Samuel planted them near his own peach trees, which were probably an early Crawford variety, and, thanks to the hardworking bees in the neighborhood, cross-pollination took place, producing a brand new freestone fruit that he promptly named after his wife, Elberta.

The simplest way to eat a peach is to wash it off and bite into it. Eighteenth century poet James Thomson had even more straight forward technique. He never bothered to pick the fruit. He’d keep an eye on the tree in his garden and when a peach seemed destined to explode of its own ripe juiciness, he would stroll into the garden and stand beneath the peach with his hands in his pockets. Moving only his mouth, he would reach up and take one perfect bite from the sunny side. The rest he left for the birds.

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