Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.
It is early in the morning. I’m drinking my first cup of coffee. The weather has tempered to a sensible cool. I have Veteran peaches in the garden house begging to be processed. I will rise to the occasion as soon as the caffeine has entered my brain and body. I have no choice.
Despite yesterday’s blistering heat, I went to the orchard. I almost thought better of it, but was worried about the forecast of rain. Would a gentle shower or furious downpour ruin the legendary tenderness of a Veteran peach? Who knows, but I didn’t want to risk it. I figured if I got out early enough, I could beat the heat.
I’m not sure why the sun and heat has got me down this year. I’m thinking age and menopause has something to do with it. I used to love the blazing days and sultry nights of summer, but these days I’m a shut-in. If it weren’t for my garden, the harvest, and the occasional barbecue or backyard bash we are invited to, I might stay inside entirely.
But then, that’s not what a householder is allowed. This life is all shovel and hoe, sow and grow, and now, as the season demands, processing till the cows come home. To date, I have made our jam, frozen our blueberries, sauced our apples, and pickled our beans. I don’t even want to think of what stands before me. I repeat the householder’s prayer: one day, and harvest, at a time.
Sorry if that sounds dramatic. I’m just being honest. But to be fair to myself, all years are not the same for God’s little creations. Just like this year’s pear crop, I’m a little shy of my normal productive stride. But that’s where coffee comes in — thy will be done, on earth as in my kitchen.
Though last year I canned the babies up, this year’s peaches are destined for the freezer. I have learned what the family will and will not eat. As it turns out, I can can peaches, but I can’t get the family to eat canned peaches. Unlike my youngest son, who will happily down a pint jar for a snack, neither I nor the rest of my tribe considers chilled canned peaches dessert-worthy. What spoiled children we are.
Frozen peaches for smoothies, on the other hand, seem to be a different matter. The husband will make smoothies year-round and considers it a good thing. Me, well, I’m not a smoothie fan either. I’d rather chew my food. I gave up smoothies after O.D.ing on them in the 1960s when they first showed up on the blackboards of hippie haunts everywhere. Like pesto (and now bacon), they became the ubiquitous culinary marker of the time. (Note to chefs: TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING IS TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING).
But I’m alone in my resistance. For many, smoothies are forever. Which is not to say I don’t love me some peach. I do. I’m just a little more particular about how I eat them.
These days, the best peach for me is a right-off-the-tree fresh one. In fact, the thing I love most about peaches is the act of picking them, or rather, the sensations I get when I’m in the orchard. There is something wonderful about the brilliant and vast clarity of a summer sky. Whether it’s the pitch of the sun, the moisture in the air, or the axis of the earth at that time of the year, I do not know, but that startling blue can take my breath away.
I love walking beneath it through the rows of sprightly and healthy trees laden with pendulous fruit. What a sight. What endless fecundity. What fragrance. You will not find that fragrance anywhere else on earth — not in the store or at the farmers’ market. It is rich and syrupy. It wafts through the air. It’s intoxicating.
Then there’s that peach flavor when the fruit is picked right off the tree: hot, full, bursting with juice that runs down your chin and arm in that quintessential flavor of summer. Sure, each fruit has its wonder, but peaches stand alone. The Allman Brothers did not name their album Eat a Melon or a Berry or an Apple. No, it was "Eat a Peach" for a reason. Nothing can beat it.
Walking the rows, I chant the day’s praises. I offer spontaneous prose in tribute to the fleeting peachiness of the moment. Sometimes I wonder what the other peach pickers are thinking, but who cares? I am in rapture. This day comes only once a year, and I’m gonna give it its due.
Which is not to say I ignore the more practical side of picking. I do not. I heed the instructions of the orchard master on the best way to choose and harvest a peach. Evidently Veteran peaches (and all peaches, I assume) want to have a slight yellow hue at the stem and a red blush on the tush (a technical term). They want to give easily as you lift, not twist, them off their stem. You want to sense their ripeness but should not squeeze them. Because you can bruise a Veteran peach, in particular, just by looking at it.
Their fragile nature is just the reason the loyal show up with all sorts of batting material to keep their babies safe. I’m not kidding here. My friend Marge saves her berry haleks (green berry containers to you) for just this purpose. One peach to a halek, nice and neat. I’m not quite as cautious, though I do not stack them. One row, and that’s it.
Marge and I have pitied the poor peach that has been tossed into the basket. We’ve seen it done by the kids who come to “help” with the harvest. Better you take those kids to an apple harvest and bring the more nuanced picker with you on peach day.
Before you know it, I have all I can handle and, once transported home, my peaches sit waiting in the garden house till I’m ready. I finish the last sips of coffee and this post. I must make haste now. The pots of water must be put on so I can blanch, peel, and prepare peaches for the freezer. I will do what I can to harness the memory and goodness of a summer’s day in the orchard.
I hope the family loves their smoothies. For me, the best has already come and gone.
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