I have been thinking of the names of old peach varieties
that few people grow anymore:
Elberta. J. H. Hale. Red Haven.
These old fruits lacked full color and shelf life, qualities
more and more fruit brokers and produce managers claimed were
needed. And consumer dollars rewarded newer varieties bred
for lipstick-red color and could stay rock hard for weeks
in cold storage after harvest. Who cared about taste when
they looked so good? Old fruits were deemed obsolete along
with their farmers.
Now as I farm organically and cling to varieties I grew up
with (Sun Crest peaches and Le Grand nectarines), and which
mostly are gone from the valley's fields, mine seem like memorials
to the past. I, too, am feeling old and forgotten.
Once while cleaning up after a long day's work, I found,
tucked up high on a shelf in our barn, an old tin coffee can
where you saved the hand stamps from our fruit-packing days.
Rio so Gem. Sun Grand. Late Le Grand.
I read aloud those names as the evening gave way to darkness.
It felt like citing a list of our neighbor farmers who have
Kamm Oliver, Kei Hiyama, Al Riffel.
But these hand stamps are different, and they are part of
my history, too. Every summer, I lived with them, pressing
the names onto wooden boxes. The stamps' wooden handles were
worn smooth from use over the years. The rubber lettering
gradually collected saw dust and had to be periodically cleaned
out with a nail. My fingers wore perpetual purple ink stains,
and one summer I spent weeks with "Forty-niner" - a cling
peach - embossed on my arm like a farmboy's tattoo.
Names from our past. A simpler time when we farmed by working
with nature before pesticides and herbicides. And we knew
all the peaches' names because there were only a few. Stores
used to advertise by variety, and families held annual gatherings
centered on fruits. I've heard that Elbertas brought generations
of women together to can and jam: an American quilt based
on food that we contributed to each year.
Ironically, with dozens of varieties and new ones introduced
annually, fruits today are rarely sold by name. Most peaches
are now simply peaches grown with the goal of cosmetic beauty
- as if all peaches should look the same: red, hard and clean
of blemishes. In the process, we have lost our identity in
a generic marketplace.
Of course, some heirloom varieties had flaws and prone to
spit pits or small size. Others overly sensitive to weather
swings - a cool spring may produce a funny shape or a heat
wave prior to harvest can promote a soft and easily bruised
tip. All reasons why some old varieties have fallen aside,
doomed in a modern market place that seems to reward size,
looks and shelf life. We live in a world that wants young
peaches and nectarines.
But these stamps connect me with a time and place, and echo
with reminders of our family farm. You've taught me well,
Dad. I still farm with a respect for nature and a passion
for taste, hoping my fruits create that moment of recognition
in the middle of long summer days, a pause to enjoy something
We farm memories - fruits that catapult someone into remembrances
of things past: a story of eating a freshly picked Babcock
peach or Green Gage plum. If our work is done correctly, it's
no longer our fruits but rather a personalized story of flavor.
I want to believe people still remember great peaches. It's
probably an older generation or those with a hunger of memory
who know what sweet, juicy ones taste like. And I hope they
My greatest fear is of a generation growing up without an
appreciation of these flavors. They don't know the taste of
a great peach or nectarine or plum. All their knowledge is
based on what they've been exposed to: a peach flavored jelly
bean or fruit roll-up. Sugar sweetness all too often becomes
their criteria in judging taste.
As a result, old varieties become homeless. Without memory,
there is no sense of what is lost. Sun Crest and Le Grand
become secrets, and the world doesn't need any more secrets.
Dad, I just might find a way to use these old stamps and
perhaps add some new ones to our farm family.
Nubiana. Flavortop. Nectar.
They sound wonderful, like poetry, and make me feel young.
Perhaps that's why you kept the stamps all these years in
that old coffee can.
And so will I.
A version of this story was previously
published in the Fresno Bee.