A Taste of Summer
Summer Food Essays: A Pinch of Recollection, A Dash of Tradition
Peach SeasonOn the second Saturday in June, I went to the farmers market for the first time this year. It's always a happy reunion -- with the farmers who show up faithfully year after year, with Saturday-morning shopping friends I hadn't seen in a while, and with the luscious, locally grown vegetables and fruit.
Among the heirloom tomatoes and peppers and herbs and varieties of squashes and eggplants, I was pleased to find Fredericksburg peaches. Could it be that time already? The older I get, the shorter the space of time between peach seasons seems to become.
I cruised all the peach vendors' stands and got in line at the one whose wares called out loudest to me. As I painstakingly picked mine out, my friend Carolyn walked up to see what I was buying. "I'm looking for really ripe ones," I told her. "I suddenly have a craving for peach pie."
The peach farmer pricked up his ears. "You want ripe? I'll sell you a bushel of seconds for five dollars." I mentally calculated everything else I had to do that day. I knew those peaches wouldn't keep. But there was really no question in my mind. "I'll take them," I said.
Later that afternoon in my still not air-conditioned downtown kitchen, I spent a couple of hours peeling and slicing the peaches, visions of pies and cobblers and sorbets dancing in my head as I separated the sound flesh from the too-mushy parts destined for the compost. I thought about the miracle of seasonal fruit -- that I could perform this exercise in Texas only in June, and at no other time of the year.
Processing large quantities of produce can be tiring and tedious. Or, it can become a meditation. As I worked my way through the bushel, I thought about long-ago summers when I was in graduate school, living on a hilltop farm outside then-rural Round Rock, where the land included an ancient and neglected but very prolific peach orchard. As I remember it, the entire crop became ripe and ready within about a week, and it was always a contest to get to the peaches before the birds did, and a race against time to get them all processed before they spoiled. I could easily envision those long June afternoons in the farmhouse kitchen under that too-slow ceiling fan -- peach goo up to my elbows, renegade flies buzzing, sweat trickling between my shoulder blades, wayward strands of hair in my eyes -- as I endlessly stirred vast hot vats of simmering peach jam.
That old farmhouse (immortalized as the set for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and the peach orchard are only memories now, buried beneath somebody's suburban lawn. So are those myriad pint jars of peach jam that I so proudly put up in that high-ceilinged kitchen. But twentysomething years later, the catalyst of peaches remains. The peach continuum.
Half a bushel to go, I mused further back to some early childhood summers on the Gulf Coast, when four generations of Texas pioneer women (they all lived in the city by then, but they were still pioneers) perspired and gossiped as they worked through quantities of peaches or mayhaws or cream peas brought back from East Texas, or purchased from black men in wagons on the streets of Houston. "I declare," my great-aunt Jessie would say, marveling at some transgression or indiscretion of somebody. Her mother, my great-grandmother Teke, her wrinkled and bent fingers moving relentlessly, would purse her lips in disapproval but she'd listen anyway. So would I, although at five or so, I had no idea what Jessie was talking about. I probably wasn't much help with those peaches, either, but I somehow felt included in the proceedings, and I wanted to be part of the women's work and talk.
Peaches. I'm glad that I still want to do this. That, despite my urban, high-tech existence, I feel compelled every June to repeat some form of the ritual. That patient peach ritual that is the legacy of my family and of women everywhere -- the gatherers, not the hunters -- who wait and watch and notice, and then get busy responding to the fleeting but compelling bounty of the season. Peach ice cream, anyone?