A Peach Waits for No Man

David Culp

David Culp › An eighth-generation Southerner, David Culp is a producer and the writer of the Cooking Channel series ...

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My friend Edwin dropped by a few days ago with a big box of fresh peaches.

Edwin lives in East Texas, the last identifiably Deep-South region you pass through as you head west, a vast, piney country that stretches from the Louisiana line almost to Dallas where, as Will Rogers observed, ‘the East peters out’.

They grow nice produce out Edwin’s way, peaches being not the least of it.

Stuck as I usually am with rock-hard grocery-store peaches picked green and trucked from Lord knows where, I should have viewed that box of tree-ripened fruit as an unalloyed blessing. But as I picked up a peach from the box and felt its flesh yield to the touch, part of me, the part that clings to the illusion that my time is my own, realized that a piece of my day had just been hijacked — gently and benevolently, but hijacked nonetheless.

Few things short of a wet baby or an engine fire demand attention as urgently as a ripe peach.

Few things short of a wet baby or an engine fire demand attention as urgently as a ripe peach. It will turn from soft, fragrant and juicy to squishy, brown and disgusting in an eye blink.

I wasn’t about to let that happen, of course. To squander a peach, let alone a whole box of them, is unthinkable. The season is too short; the consequences are too dire. Unlike, say, a cucumber plant that will bury you in fruit with shameless abandon for weeks on end (and admit it, you lose some respect for it when it does), peach trees are prima divas. When they are good and ready they will offer you their sublime, fleeting gift. And if you decline to partake right then — well, Buster, you will wait a long time for another chance.

This sweet tyranny of the peach had already been on my mind for several days before Edwin’s visit, ever since a family reunion the previous weekend in Chilton County, Alabama. Chilton County is to peaches what the Côte-d’Or is to pinot. It is, one writer friend effuses, a “towering testament to the fruit that makes the region famous.”

Headquarters for the reunion, our old family church and cemetery, happens to be next to a pretty little peach orchard. The trees and my ancestors are planted, as it were, within yards of each other, an aspect of the terroir that, now that I think about it, may be best left unexamined.

Arriving at the church Saturday afternoon, I found that my cousin Debbie had commandeered the kitchen in the fellowship hall and was feverishly working her way through a great pile of peaches, cutting them up and packing the freezer with plastic containers full. Except for a few left out for immediate consumption, they had to be frozen, she said. Tree-ripened and just picked, they were at peak flavor — a state of grace so fleeting that their goodness wouldn’t even survive her drive home to Atlanta after church Sunday.

Debbie knows a lot about peaches, as one would hope from a woman who lives in a city where half the streets are named Peachtree. Peaches are different from other fruits, she explained. It won’t do to pick a peach as soon as it’s mature. Maturing and ripening are two different things with a peach. You have to be patient, let the mature fruit stay on the tree until the sugars develop and the flesh softens. It’s the only way to get that gorgeous peachiness you’re after. But then, having attained it through patient restraint, you had better hurry and grab a sharp knife and get busy.

And so it was that as soon as Edwin left I canceled a social engagement and instead spent the evening in communion with that box of peaches. It was the most peaches I had ever dealt with at one time. For the first little while, I found a certain Zen serenity in peeling them in my accustomed way, turning the fruit against the edge of a paring knife, letting the blade lathe a spiral ribbon of soft peel. Peaches thus denuded have a rough-hewn, folk-artsy look that I like.

After a couple of dozen, however, and with many more to go, I became aware of a question starting to peck at a back corner of my mind: Do you think there might be a faster way to peel a peach?

It seemed like a good question. I rinsed the peach juice off my hands and reached — purely out of academic interest, you understand — for the venerable culinary encyclopedia, Larousse Gastronomique. The Larousse people are not infallible authorities on matters Southern. They report, for example, that the “pecan nut” comes from the northeastern United States. But they are aces when it comes to peach peeling. I tried their recommended method — again, strictly out of academic interest — and had the rest of the peaches peeled in minutes.

This technique may not feel as artisanal as the other, but it has its own aesthetic appeal in the end. Dunk the fruit in boiling water for 30 seconds. After that you can strip off the delicate peel almost as cleanly as a silk stocking, leaving you with a soft orb of smooth, perfect flesh.

From there, slicing takes no time. And it results in a bonus: a pile of peach pits. Most people throw them away, unaware that every pit has a prize in the middle, an almond-like kernel called a noyau.

Noyaux, found also in other stone fruits such as apricots, are good for adding a rich almondy flavor to everything from cobblers and ice creams to booze infusions.

But maybe the best thing about them is, you can set the pits aside and crack out the noyaux whenever you get around to it. It’s the one thing about a peach that can wait.

Do you feel the pressure when ripe, ready-to-go peaches are in your kitchen?

Photo credit: David Culp