|The summer's first crop of peaches at the Peach Tree Orchards fruit stand in York, SC|
Craving fresh peaches, we drove to the Peach Tree Orchards fruit stand on the Filbert Highway between Clover and York. This was the last day of May, so I feared we’d be too early, but our timing was perfect. As owner Ben Smith explained to us, the Flavorich peaches set out in baskets to be sold that day constituted the first crop of the season. They had been picked in his fields that morning.
Given my love of food, it’s not surprising that one of my earliest memories is salvaged from a fruit-picking expedition I participated in when I was barely old enough to walk. This is a memory of toddling after my older sisters through a blackberry thicket. I was barefoot, a rare occasion of freedom, I believe, rather than neglect, and it was heavenly to feel the dust on my feet and the summer sun baking my head. Someone encouraged me to pluck a berry from the cane and eat it. That first gustatory experience of a sun-ripened blackberry coated lightly with dust dissolving into sweet, dark bliss on my tongue was so profoundly pleasurable that no meal eaten since has rivaled it.
Eating a field-ripened South Carolina peach comes pretty close. I keep the Peach Tree’s crop calendar posted on my refrigerator, and in the heart of the season my husband and I make the trip there as often as we can to buy half-bushels of the cling varieties, Flavorich and Ruby Prince (which ripen in June), the July-ripening freestones like Contender and Loring, and the August beauties that are some of my favorites, such as Flame Prince, Big Red, and Monroe. Certain connoisseurs prefer the subtler flavor of white varieties like White Lady and Early Belle, but when I eat a fresh peach I’m not looking for ‘subtle.’ I want that same, sensory-overload explosion of flavor and sticky juice I experienced as a fruit-picking toddler, and when it comes to the yellow peaches of York County, the greedy child in me is usually satisfied.
Peaches can be easily frozen by peeling and slicing them, placing the slices in a single layer on a cookie sheet and putting the sheet in the freezer briefly. Once the slices are frozen, they can be removed from the sheet and returned to the freezer in a labeled plastic freezer bag; this way you’ll be able to remove the slices as you need them, rather than having to defrost the whole bag. They’re much better used fresh, of course, and whenever we have company coming mid-summer I bake a fruit crisp pairing ripe peach slices with blackberries, covered with an oatmeal-butter-brown sugar crust and served warm with vanilla ice cream. That dish is perfect for the two-year-olds in everyone.
When shopping at The Peach Stand I often pick up a six-pack of the locally made Blenheim ginger ale my husband’s so fond of. (Warning: the bottles with the red caps are ‘extra hot’ – if you chug one, stand clear of innocent bystanders who may be harmed by the steam blasting out your ears.) Meanwhile, he gets in line at the ice cream counter for the peach milkshake and buys a cone for me. Then we carry our treasures across Philbeck Road, where peach fields stretch away to the horizon, and settle at one of the picnic tables sheltered by a giant willow oak. The oak’s shade is essential by August, but whenever one is eating a fresh peach (or peach ice cream) the heat feels like a necessary part of the experience.
I think summer memories are durable because they involve so many of life’s simplest pleasures. Those delights don’t go out of fashion, no matter if you’re two years old or ninety-two. I hope to make it to the latter age clutching a ripe peach in my hand.