When I was a little girl in Southern California, I routinely turned up my nose at fresh fruit. Like many kids, I preferred the soft, unidentifiable, brightly colored fruit cubes that came so conveniently out of a can. (I know I wasn’t the only kid partial to that sweet, syrupy fruit from the ’70s, but the irony of walking to school through orange groves in the agricultural capital of the nation, paired with my chosen career as a fruit preserver, is not lost on me.)
One summer day, my older brother came up with a money-making scheme to suspend fresh peach slices in cups of Jell-O, top them with Reddi-wip and sell them on the street in front of our apartment building for money that we could spend on candy at the corner store (we weren’t allowed such things at our house). I WAS IN.
Although I initially thought I was in it for the money (aka the candy), it turns out that I never, ever forgot about those juicy peaches elegantly weightless in their orange-hued pillows. I was peach-smitten. Fast forward 15 years and I’m driving across the country heading east, sailing past the peach stands on Highway 290 toward Austin. I had no idea what I was getting into when I moved to Texas, but peaches turned out to be a delicious part.
By most accounts, peaches are native to China, but Texas peaches have a long-standing history in the Lone Star State. Though not the state fruit (that designation belongs to Texas Red Grapefruit), peaches are one of the leading fruit crops, and it’s estimated that there are more than 1 million trees planted statewide. Average annual production is more than 1 million bushels—that’s 48 million pounds to those of us unschooled in farm lingo!
The birth of the Texas peach is said to have begun in the Tyler area in the late 19th century, courtesy of ideal growing conditions and rail lines that could take the fruit to market. Onward into the next century, peach orchards sprouted up throughout the state—moving south and west—reaching a glorious peak in Gillespie County, where the red clay soil produces the highest yield and, many say, the state’s best-tasting peaches.
Thanks to modern science and horticulture’ research, Texas now grows peach varieties that generally begin ripening in May (clingstones) and reach a peachy crescendo sometime in August and as late as September (freestones). We are spoiled indeed.
Let’s face it, there’s simply nothing better than eating a fresh peach out of hand, with the juices running all over, but if you find yourself with a few extra, here are some new ways to cook with this sweet, iconic fruit.
By Stephanie McClenny