Come summer, I’m a peach monogamist.
Forget banal, second-class stone fruit like plums and pluots. I eat a peach a day with life-affirming enthusiasm until the bitter end of August, when grapes show up at the market and ruin everything. As someone who finds fall to be disconcertingly crisp and full of long shadows and adults in creepy costumes, I look forward to the sunny comforts of a peach all year long.
The perfect peach is transporting. A Diamond Princess eaten over the sink—or better yet, thickly sliced and placed on top of a piece of well-but- tered toast—can conjure a mirage of a sprinkler watering the soft, green, all-American lawn I will never have unless I leave my drafty Victorian and its view of the Castro flag behind and move to Burlingame. Licking the juice off my wrist, I can almost see a Slip ’n Slide summer within my reach— even with the heater on and the fog blowing like a blizzard.
But here’s the thing: Buying peaches in San Francisco makes me queasy. Because they’re a fragile fruit that needs to be picked ripe, the best spec- imens are found at a farmers’ market, which means you’re looking at shell- ing out $3 to $4 a pound: about $2 a peach, $20 a pie. Prices can go as high as $5 a pound at designer farm stands like Frog Hollow. Considered to produce the pinnacle of peaches, Frog Hollow tempts me with varieties such as its Cal-Reds—peaches that actually have their own Facebook page and once had a publicist. Peaches that are shipped nationwide in what appear to be their own Tempur-Pedic beds. Considering I’ll blithely throw $3.25 at a pedigreed cappuccino, you’d think I wouldn’t hesitate to treat myself to peaches that have made the pages of Vogue. Maybe if peaches had caffeine in them.
Still, the whole transaction has me sucking in my breath while I wait for the smiling farmers’ market helper to give me the grand total. I know better than to express my qualms. Instead, I inwardly repeat a little mantra: Cheap food is an illusion created by the government that subsidizes com- mercial farms that use pesticides and are influenced by evil corporations like Monsanto. I support the small farmer, who chats with me about how his kids are doing. Then I hand over the 20 bucks.
Clearly, this is a loaded situation, which is why it’s critical that my peaches are not a disappointment. At the market, flat-bottomed woven basket in hand (essential if you don’t want your peaches to bruise), I’m as insufferable as Anton Ego: sniffing peaches deeply, covertly pressing my thumb into their tops to test for ripe- ness, weighing their heft, and tasting sample after sample. I’m looking for yellow peaches that have enough acid to arouse the back corners of my mouth, peaches that stand up for themselves—June Prides, O’Henrys. None of this namby-pamby white peach nonsense. When I find a perfect specimen, I knight the farmer who grew it. At the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, Hamada Farms has often won my favor and Tory Farms is on my to-do list. At the Santa Rosa market, I head to the unpretentious EGB Farms to buy from a gregarious woman named Brenda.
Another reason I’ve remained on this path is for the good of humanity. David Mas Masumoto, the Fresno organic farmer and author of the beloved book Epitaph for a Peach—the guy who made me romanticize Sun- crests with their sharp little tips—once gave a talk about food memories. If people don’t grow up eating good fruit, he said, they’ll never have the flavor memory to continue to demand it. In other words, if you’re raised on super- market peaches, you’re only going to know hard, fuzzy things that ripen into flavorless disappointments. And in this apocalyptic scenario, you won’t have the sense to be disappointed. You’ll be a tiny bit richer, but your soul will be dead as you obliviously live happily ever after eating pathetic peach impostors. The end.
My mother, who has been on a sour- cherry vision quest herself since 1974, gets this kind of fruit fetishism. My husband, though, finds my annual quest for perfection tedious. He’s no food miser, but he’s a son of the Central Valley, the agricultural heartland where farmers are far more likely to quote Rush Limbaugh than Michael Pollan. His parents, who still live in Modesto, find my obsessions amusing—in that “look at what the elitist city folks are up to” kind of way.
Which is why my father-in-law started driving in peaches to the city for me from a small, three-generation Modesto farm called Smith Ranch. Its excellent peaches are $10 for a heaping flat. Smith Ranch even grows Fay Elbertas, a hard-to-find heirloom varietal, the pièce de résistance of the season, as my mother-in-law says. By the time they get to my house, some are inevitably a bit battered, because Modesto peaches aren’t treated like princesses. But at this price, I can handle flaws; I cut around the blemishes. I eat the peaches with gluttonous abandon, I use them in desserts, even when they’re experiments. If one is mealy, I don’t mope. I imagine it’s just like the olden days, when a peach was just a peach.