By Sandy D’Amato
I came late to the “fresh peach parade.” In my preteen years, my dad and I would arrive at his Milwaukee grocery store in the early morning and I would grab a can of sliced cling peaches off the shelf and place it in the bottom of the dairy refrigerator. When our lunchtime rolled around, it was chilled to perfection. I would pluck out a small wedge and let the viscous sugar syrup slide off before indulging.
For many years, I thought that was all I needed to know about peaches. Not that we didn’t have fresh peaches in season at the store. Their arrival was ushered in by the hottest days of summer, late July to August, when it was so hot by early afternoon, time would almost stand still. Not one potential customer was brave enough to leave the cooling breeze of their fan or air conditioner to venture outside to shop. I would be half asleep behind the counter, but the half of me that was awake had its eye on the reddish-orange pyramid of peaches that had been uncrated that morning. Always hopeful, but perpetually disappointed, I would rouse myself enough to shuffle over, cut one up, and take a bite: It was woody, slightly mealy, and certainly less than flavorful.
For years, I was happily content to stick with local strawberries, raspberries, plums, and cherries through the summer. This was until about 20 years back, when my wife, Angie, and I were traveling through the South on an early-July barbecue quest. On our second day in Alabama, I came to a screeching halt at a roadside stand as the area was permeated with a fruit aroma that was foreign to me. It was sweet peaches. We bought a large bag and hopped back in the RV. As we inched back on the road, Angie handed me a particularly blushing specimen and, after the first bite, I had to pull back off to the side of the road. Unctuous sticky peach liquor was dripping down my arm and the steering wheel was starting to slide. I needed to stop and revel in the most perfect peach I had ever tasted.
This scenario repeated itself daily as we drove through Georgia and South Carolina feeling like a couple of peach pits enrobed by the intoxicating aroma of fresh fruit. Peaches, I quickly realized, have an elusive perfume and sweet tart flavor that screams summer more any other fruit. I was sad to leave as I realized that, in the Midwest, I would never again have that yearly access to tree-ripened peaches like I did other fruit.
A few years later, while we were visiting the Pioneer Valley for the first time, our friends David and Lisa brought us to a farmers market. When David stopped and picked up a bag of peaches, I wasn’t overly excited. We weren’t far enough south to be having anything close to a killer peach. He handed me one from the bag and just as I was about to rattle off a polite, “Well, these aren’t too bad for Northern peaches,” I found myself immediately speechless, dripping, and completely smitten!
Since we moved to the Valley, I have had many revelations in the fruit and vegetable world within a five-mile radius of our Hatfield home. Asparagus, corn, straw- and blue-berries, cukes—and that’s just the summer. But the number one revelation? The peaches. The first fruit trees we planted upon moving to Hatfield eight years ago were peach—along with plum, cherry, apple, and pear,which make us feel like we’re living in a slightly less naked Garden of Eden. They say you can’t have it all, but that depends on what you want!