The Annual Hunt for Perfectly Ripe Peaches



To try Regina's recipe for peach cobbler with candied ginger, click here.

This week I had to tackle the unavoidable task of a Sunday morning trip to the grocery store. I am not the typical person who shops on a scheduled day of the week. If I had my way, food would mysteriously end up on my kitchen counter.

Although I never mind going to a farmers' market, a butcher shop, a specialty food shop, or my favorite hardware store, I find that Walmart is my worst nightmare. My dislike for Walmart is not for any political reason—although there are plenty. I just cannot stand having to walk a city block to get one item, then walk two more to get another without the benefit of fresh air and scenery. I do object to the surly helpers at the deli counter. (I had to ask the manager one day if it was a prerequisite to be cranky and rude to run the meat slicer there.) It bothered me when he could not answer right away. But even being ignored and abused at the deli counter is not always enough to keep me away, as far too often Walmart is the only place to find many items on your grocery list when you live in a small town.

The perfect peach should be quite perfumed, juicy,
and soft.

I had missed the farmers' market on Saturday, and I wanted peaches. Within a few feet of entering Walmart there were peaches, huge and picture-perfect—too perfect and too good to be true. They were just that: perfect for a picture but hard as rocks. I never have luck with peaches, tomatoes, or avocados ripening in my kitchen window. They go from unripe to a bruised overripe no matter how good I am at keeping a close eye. Something happens from 10 at night to 8 in the morning, I am convinced. There were no peaches in my basket on Sunday. I began feeling I would miss the season all together, and I started thinking. Who would know the trick to ripening store-bought peaches?

Someone came to mind, one of the finest men I know, Mr. Marion Smith. I know we so often hear that behind every good man is a good woman. Well, Mr. Smith has a marriage that works both ways. He has the job of standing behind one of the strongest women in our community, with so many accomplishments we would never get to peaches if I named them all, but the most memorable is she is the founder of the Natchez Literary Festival, which has grown into an elegant and smart event that reflects its creator. Mr. Smith has been practicing law in Natchez for over 50 years and served three terms as a state senator and has the greatest accomplishment that I know: living in a small town where everyone adores you. I never hear anything but nice things about him. It is hard to say who props up whom in this relationship of two very accomplished and giving people.

I had Mr. Smith meet me for lunch recently, and as we talked about his attempt at planting peach trees at Glen Mary Plantation in Adams County, Mississippi, the conversation often ended up with mention of his wife, which I find so dear in this time of short-term relationships. We spoke of the problems with deer constantly trashing the peach trees and how he finally beat the problem with plastic pipe and barbed wire. When we spoke of crops, he told me that as a young lawyer and bachelor in town, he and his friends anticipated the "new crop" of schoolteachers arriving in town for the year. I do believe he remembers the year that his dear Carolyn came to town as the best crop. He has had better luck in love than in growing peaches, but he perseveres.

We spoke of all the attempts at growing peaches at Glen Mary, and there have been many successes (but not without soil testing, fertilizing, and spraying), as fruit trees have graced that property for five generations. His grandsons Lisle, 12, and McLain, 9, spent this summer picking figs, peaches, and pears like it was an Easter egg hunt, much as their Smith great-great-grandparents did at Glen Mary many decades ago.

Mr. Smith said his favorite varieties for this area are Albertas, then he reluctantly referred to that little school not far from here (LSU) that developed a good peach—the Feliciana. (Mr. Smith is an alum of undergrad and law school at University of Mississippi, and if you know anything about Southern universities and the rivalry of SEC teams, you know it must be an incredible peach if he gives any credit to Louisiana State University.)

These are my words of wisdom when it comes to peaches. Never squeeze a peach, as you basically ruin it. Select unbruised peaches with nice color, full shape, and nice weight for their size. Place the peach stem side down on a linen napkin or cotton tea towel—no substitutions. Make sure the fruits don't touch, and keep them in a cool place, not in the sun, then cover them with another linen napkin or cotton tea towel. It may take a few days. They are ripe when they smell like peach and the stem side is pressed down a bit from the weight and softening of the peach. The perfect peach should be quite perfumed, juicy, and soft. I thought and thought about mine. When I asked Mr. Marion Smith for his words of wisdom, all I can say is "brilliant"! Mr. Smith's best words of wisdom: "When you pick up a peach, if it does not smell like a ripe, sweet peach, put it down."

Recipe: Regina's Peach Cobbler With Candied Ginger