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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Peaches, Thomas Jefferson, and Xi Wang Mu

Inside the cup: peaches of immortality

Every summer about this time I come to the same conclusion about peaches as Ben Franklin reportedly did about beer: “Beer is a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Indeed, though for me it’s peaches rather than beer. You’d think after over a month of peaches on my oatmeal, on my pancakes, over ice yogurt, and overwhelmingly just eaten straight, the juice dribbling down my chin—you’d think I’d be tired of peaches. You’d be wrong. ,

This high opinion of peaches is not restricted to me, of course. A superlative complexion on a woman is called “peaches and cream.” When things are going well, “everything is peachy.” Tellingly, peaches were Thomas Jefferson’s favorite fruit if one judges by number of varieties planted at Monticello.

Jefferson had 38 varieties of peach in Monticello’s south orchard alone, encompassing Old and New World varieties, early and late producers, freestones and clingstones. He was particularly fond of Italian/southern European varieties (Alberges, Madalena, Vaga loggia) sent him by his friend Philip Mazzei, but characteristically emphasized American varieties, such as Heath Cling, Oldmixon Cling, Indian-blood Cling, and Morris’ Red Rareripe.

In addition to enjoying peach slices (often over ice cream) and peach preserves at the table, Jefferson dried vast quantities of peach, and made (or, more precisely, had his slaves make) mobby, a peach cider, which he possibly distilled into peach brandy.

Peaches were introduced into the New World by the Spaniards at St. Augustine, Florida around 1565. From there, native-Americans and Jesuit missionaries moved peaches steadily north. The trees escaped cultivation and grew widely over the Southeast, so that early European and colonial botanists assumed peaches were native to North America as well as Europe. (Of course, they are native to China—more on this later—reaching Europe via Persia.)

The appreciation of peaches is not restricted to us Europeans and Euro-americans, of course.
Among the oldest goddesses in China is Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West. She’s in charge of death and hence the avoidance of death—immortality. Her identifying logo: the peach. Indeed, Xi Wang Mu is depicted among whole orchards of peaches in her Kunlun Mountain realm far to the west of China (where the sun sets, i.e. the death of the day). It’s probably no coincidence that botanists locate the ancient origin of peaches in these same Kunlun mountains of China.

A peach is also associated with Shou Shing, one of the three Taoist star gods. Shou Shing is the god of longevity, and he is depicted carrying a peach, as though offering it to the viewer. May you have long life. A long life filled with joy and pleasure, such as you experience eating peaches!

I was searching 20 years ago for a five-year marriage anniversary gift for Tammy, in an antique shop on the main drag in Santa Cruz. Hidden away in the dark corner of a shelf was a stack of small Chinese tea cups—five of them, which caught my eye as appropriate to this anniversary. On the white outside of the cups were painted craggy limbs and delicate blossoms of flowering plum, symbols of life (the blossoms) emerging from wintry death (the bare limbs). Also on the cups’ outside were two flying bats, whose name (bian fu) is a homonym for “become prosperous” in Chinese.

The inside of each cup had only one depiction, at the very bottom of the cup: a peach. The ultimate wish for the Chinese: immortality, or the practical approximation which we humans can hope for, long life. Tammy and I have enjoyed much tea from these cups the past 20 years, right up to yesterday.

This being late August, the end of the peach season looms in a month or so—a dreadful, unsettling prospect. So last Saturday at the farmer’s market we bought a lug of peaches and spend Sunday peeling and slicing them, then into plastic freezer bags. They sit in the corner of our freezer, a goodly stack of summer sunshine and pleasure to be enjoyed in the cold, grim days of January and February. I’m already looking forward to it.

The ideal peach, of course, doesn’t require peeling. You simply pull the skin off, which yields gratifyingly easy in the perfect peaches, ensuring that you don’t lose any of the peach in peeling. The best peel-able peaches I know of are grown in the small town of Porter, about half an hour from my boyhood home in Tulsa. When I visit Tulsa, I make a pilgrimage to Porter and fill much of a bushel basket with peaches I pick straight off the trees in the orchard.

Picking your own peaches, of course, is even more satisfying than buying them at the farmer’s market. The university farm here at Chico State University has peach orchards, and I have picked directly off the trees there a time or two. Intermediate in satisfaction between the actual tree and the farmer’s market is the roadside fruit stand along rural byways in Northern California.

We Barnett’s have our favorite fruit stand, 45 minutes down the road toward Sacramento: Tony’s Fruit Stand. Tony’s specializes in peaches, and in the summer from late May on has at least one and often two or three varieties available from their own and their neighbor’s orchards. We rarely get a less-than-perfect peach from Tony’s. And of course, while there we stock up on corn, walnuts, plums, and local honey.

In years past I’d make a special trip by auto to Tony’s several times a summer for their peaches. Now that gas is so expensive, though, the frequency of those trips has plummeted, and it’s only while driving to Sacramento for one reason or another that we stop in at Tony’s. The car automatically turns in at the gravel road leading there.

I’ve worked up an appetite on this little essay. Time to take a break and eat a peach. Bon appetit!

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