By Virginia Willis
You have never been hot until you’ve been peach picking in the middle of a Georgia summer. Rumor has it that hell is cooler. The air is thick and stifling. Gnats and mosquitoes buzz about incessantly. Peach fuzz covers your arms and wrists. The combination is an effective blend for guaranteed misery. But in the end, after turning those bushels of perfectly ripe fruit into jam, each amber spoonful is more precious than gold.
I grew up in the middle of peach country in Georgia and each summer the women of my family would make “put-up peaches.” We’d can peaches, freeze peaches and make peach jam. The absolute best, however, was eating fresh peaches straight off the tree, still warm from the sun. While filling our buckets we would take a break, rub the downy fuzz off on our shirts and eat them in the orchard, the sweet juices running down our arms. Back home, Mama would make a pound cake topped with glistening, juicy sliced peaches.
When I was in high school, my school breaks were dictated by picking season as many of my classmates were the sons and daughters of farmers. Peaches are big business here; Georgia produces over 85 million pounds of peaches a year. Although Georgia doesn’t grow as many peaches as some other states, including South Carolina and California, it is deservedly known as “The Peach State,” in honor of a farmer in Marshallville who bred the Elberta peach from the seed of a Chinese Cling peach in the late 1800s. The peach industry took off from there, the state was tagged with the flavorful nickname, and the rest is sweet history.
I’m certainly biased toward Georgia peaches, but it seems to me that the red clay soil and hot sun here create a taste like no other. My favorite peach farmers, and a family that has been integral to our peach industry for generations, are the Pearsons, who have farmed peaches around Fort Valley for over a century. Al and Mary Pearson were recently joined at Pearson Farm by their son Lawton, who is the fifth generation to work on this family farm. Though farming peaches is tough work—they lost most of their crop last year due to a combination of a late spring freeze and severe drought last summer—they are dedicated to making it work.
I no longer live down the road from the Pearsons, but when I need especially juicy and delicious peaches for a dish like Arugula Salad with Honey-Drizzled Peaches, I have them shipped from Pearson Farm. That way I know they’ll be the best quality, and I can feel good about supporting a family farm and people I know.
In keeping with the region’s legendary sweet tooth, many Southern recipes can quickly turn the healthful peach into something terribly unvirtuous, though delicious. Recipes are often along the lines of the peach ice cream my grandmother made, laced with eggs and heavy cream, that we would churn on the side porch. Two of my favorites were Grandma’s fried peach pies, deep-fried half-moons of biscuit dough filled with sugar and chopped peaches, and Mama’s buttery peach cobber, baked in a cast-iron skillet. I’ve created six peach recipes that have plenty of the tasty Southern charm I grew up with, such as the peach popsicles that are not only good, they’re good for you. I’ve even made over my mama’s buttery cobbler: healthier than usual but still a perfect celebration of the delicious peach. Bon appétit, y’all!
Virginia Willis is a cook, teacher, author and culinary television producer. Her new book is Bon Appétit, Y’all! Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking (Ten Speed Press, 2008).