Yellow and orange, blushing red. Pleasantly fuzzy, sweetly aromatic. Juicy, sticky, and tender. Ripe peaches are a thing of beauty. And even though you can find a small pile of them at the supermarket all year long, now is their time to shine. We are in the throws of peach season, and we are all lucky to be alive.
I live for the arrival of stone fruit, and being from the South, I am partial to the peaches from that hot and humid corner of the country. During my childhood summers we would make the long drive down from Tennessee to Florida to visit my grandparents, and, if the timing was right, we would stop at a roadside stand and select a basket of freshly picked Georgia peaches. The car would fill with the sweet smell, and by the time we arrived they had ripened in the sun. Nothing tasted better — not even the “hot now” Krispy Kremes we also grabbed en route.
But what is it about Georgia peaches in particular? The fruit has long been synonymous with the state and remains its rosy-hued emblem. Its image adorns the state quarter, license plates, water towers, and the tail-end of every film shot there. There are more Peach Streets than you can count and there’s even a Peach County. Atlanta drops a giant peach on New Year’s instead of a sparkling ball. Georgia is as entangled with the peach as the peach is with Georgia.
Tom Okie, assistant professor at Kennesaw State University and author of the upcoming book The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South, helped me trace the figurative roots of the Southern fruit tree. It all began (as far as we know) when Spanish Jesuits planted the first American peach trees around St. Augustine, Florida in the 1500s. Native Americans and settlers alike loved the fruit, and it spread quickly up the eastern coast. “The colonists that arrived assumed it was a native because it had naturalized so thoroughly,” explained Okie.
The peach began its true rise in the Southland in the mid-1800s with the help of horticulturalists and new shipping technology. Plant explorers sent over a variety from Asia called the Chinese Cling, which became the base variety for the modern commercial peach. The Elberta — a famous variety from the late 19th and early 20th century that is still in production today — is a progeny of the Chinese Cling. It was a larger and heartier fruit that could be shipped north more easily, and was made even easier by the advent of the refrigerated railroad car. Okie explained why Georgia was in an advantageous position as the peach market took off: “Georgia was the southerly limit for peach production, and that means that they were going to have the first fruit on the eastern seaboard. If you have the first fruit, you can sell it at a higher price.”
Georgia’s location wasn’t just good for the marketplace. It was good for growing great peaches. Will McGehee is a 5th generation peach farmer at Pearson Farms and is fiercely loyal to the Georgia peach as a product and an ideal. He says two environmental factors come into play to make the best peaches: climate and dirt. “We’re just cold enough in the winter, and in the summer we have really hot days and nights, which is what you need to grow sweet peaches. Sugar likes it to be hot and stay hot.” That’s why the state produces “the sweetest peaches around.” Mid-Georgia also has a strip of red clay under the soil that catches the water during the winter rains and stores it for hot summer days.
Even though Georgia has history on its side as well as ideal growing conditions, its neighbor South Carolina and its far-off rival California out-produce it in peaches year after year. The fruit is dominated by peanuts, pecans, and even cotton in the peach state, but its iconic status remains the same. Much of this cult status comes from the early 20th century, when investors were pouring in from the North and orchards were booming. Peach enthusiasts managed to establish Peach County, the newest county in Georgia, and stage the Peach Blossom Festival during the 1920s. A small town of a few thousand would host tens of thousands of visitors for galas, pageants, contests, concerts, barbecues, parades, and more. The festival attracted the attention of people all over the east coast, and some say it unwantedly caught the eye of South Carolina farmers. The state overtook Georgia in peach production soon after.
Okie is quick to point out the cultural connection to Georgia’s push for peach popularity: “In the wake of the Civil War, the South has a reputation problem. Poverty, environmental degradation, race relations. And cotton was still the South’s biggest crop, and it had associations with all of these negative things.” Cotton needed peaches and vice versa. Peaches ripened during a lull in cotton production, using the same hand labor and providing much-needed late summer cash. And the peach represented totally different things than cotton: far off lands, prosperity, and a cultivated, permanent landscape. It even looked sexier. Peach orchards were a makeover for the agricultural South.
The boom, like all booms, didn’t last. Production declined after the 1920s following a glut in the market, but it remained a constant symbol of the state. The peach was so well established as Georgia’s crop that it allowed farmers to seek Federal assistance when business took a downturn. And even though the Great Depression was hard on peach farmers just like everyone else, the crop remains the state’s signature.
Will McGehee is quick to point out “I think it’s what we do best, and it’s nice to be known for what you do best. We’ve been growing peaches here a long, long time and we were the first to put it out on the market.” His ancestors were among the very first peach farmers in Georgia, and invented the refrigerated railcar and the Elberta. He is also one of only five families still growing peaches on a commercial level in the state. They are multi-generational farms, working hard to grow a tree that is notoriously hard to grow, praying a frost won’t seep in too late and kill off all of the delicate fruit. Nurturing an orchard that only produces 16 weeks out of the year — if you’ve planted enough varieties — and is harvested by hand. “I’m trying to make a tree live, and if it gives me fruit for 10 days a year, then great,” adds McGehee.
So, are Georgia peaches the best peaches around? It depends on who you ask and whether they’re from South Carolina or not. But most can agree that the state produces sweet and juicy fruit year after year. Fruit worth throwing a festival over; or singing a song about. Just be sure to pick your peaches carefully. Because all modern commercial peach varieties are bred to be nice and red in appearance, it can be hard to know when a peach is ripe. Use McGehee’s trick when selecting your summer fruit: “Take a look down into the stem cavity. If you see lime green, you’ve got about two days. Leave it out on the counter and let it ripen. If you see a creamy yellow or sherbert orange, that peach is ready to go that night or the next morning.”
Once you have those ripe peaches handy, make this simple dessert that showcases the fruit in all its seasonal glory. Simply sliced in half, peaches are topped with a crumble topping dotted with pecans (another Georgia crop) and baked. •
Feature image courtesy of HannaPritchett via Flickr. Recipe image courtesy of Studio 6.