I took my copy of How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table to the farmers market this morning, and probably sold twenty copies of it for Mr. Russ Parsons, its author. I think this is the best book I've read in a long time on any subject: that it is also a cookbook is just icing on the carrot cake. (No, there is no recipe for carrot cake in the book. That's fine: I prefer chocolate.)
You can sense the patience in Russ Parsons (he reminds me a bit of Michael Ruhlman): he carefully and flawlessly entertains and educates. That he reconstructs the timeline of industrialized agriculture in our country is logical and fascinating. At times, he's poetic, like when he contrasts the modern grocer's produce with "a perfect peach."
The agriculture business has gotten very good at keeping food as fresh as possible along the way, but there is no arguing with time.
As growers and marketers try to come up with ways to beat the aging process, one favorite technique is picking fruit earlier. To understand why they do this let's look at one surefire way to pick a perfect peach. All you have to do is go out in your backyard, find the one on the tree that is at the most perfect point of maturity and ripeness, pluck it gently from its branch, cradle it gingerly in your cupped hands and then walk quickly to your kitchen. Don't run—you might jostle it. A peach like this is a treasure, a taste to remember all your life.
The book is useful and beautiful: my favorite combination. The cross-referencing is brilliant. How to Pick a Peach opens with this dedication: "For all the farmers who work so hard so we cooks don't have to." Well, ya gotta love that.
After a long list of acknowledgments to farmers, writers, academians, and professionals he knows, the table of contents follows, broken down as follows:
The Vegetables and Fruits Alphabetically (a very pretty page)
The Recipes by Category (a very pretty set of pages)
The Plant Designers: Favorites in the Field
SPRING (with a list of springtime fruits and vegetables, with a detailed history of each: this repeats in the other seasonal sections)
Big Farmers, Small Farmers, the Cost of Compromise
Growers and Global Competition: Reinventing the Tomato
Market Correction: The Return of the Small Farmer
Take the chapter on the eggplant. Opening paragraph:
An eggplant is a thing of rare beauty. Its form ranges from as blocky and solid as a Botero sculpture to as sinuous and flowing as a Mogdigliani. Its color can be the violet of a particularly magnificent sunrise or as black as a starless night. It can be alabaster white or even red-orange and ruffled. And its beauty is nore than skin-deep. The flesh is at once luxurious in texture and accommodating in flavor. So why does the eggplant scare people?
He writes about the eggplant for three entire pages: a wealth of history and facts that includes details about how it gets its flavor, how to work with that flavor, and discussion of the varieties available. After this, in each chapter, are blurbs:
- Where They're Grown
- How to Choose
- How to Store
- How to Prepare
- One Simple Dish
Following this is a section with recipes: three or four per fruit or vegetable. (The eggplant is a fruit.) For this chapter: Smoky Eggplant Bruschetta, Silken Eggplant Salad, Grilled Eggplant with Walnut-Cilantro Pesto.
It's just a GREAT BOOK. I cannot imagine the person, from Harold McGee to Thomas Keller to YOU, dear reader, who would not learn something and be entertained by this book. If you shop at the farmers market, you need this book. I absolutely believe it should be taught in schools, and pressed my copy into the hands of Robin Somers, who teaches a writing course called "The Meaning of Food" up at UC Santa Cruz. (Robin is the mother of Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce.) I recommended that she teach the book in her class.
I'm only a quarter of the way through, but I already viewed things differently at the farmers market this morning. I asked Kari Thomas to select peaches for me at the Thomas Family Farm booth: the first peaches of the season. I'll eat them tomorrow, after I read the chapter on peaches and nectarines.
The book sings the praises of eating locally and seasonally, but from the pulpit of the stove and not the church of PC guilt. Parsons writes about the nuances of being "organic":
It seems to me that you can pursue a moderate approach without having a guilty conscience. And when they're being candid, many of the [farmers] who are organic will admit that their main motivation is hoping to be able to make a little more money.
After years of going back and forth on the issue, I've finally decided simply to trust taste. This is only partly hedonistic. After all, a lazy reliance on the overuse of chemicals can give you mountains of perfect-looking fruit, but it can't give you flavor. That can only come from careful farming.
Well, you know I'm going to take exception, on behalf of the farmers I know in the county, to farming for the money. Talking to Betty Van Dyke this morning at the market, she told me that she's going to take twenty acres of her family's orchard just for herself, to restore it to her vision, her standards, her way. She grows the Royal Blenheim apricots: Parsons says he left apricots out of his book because "there aren't any good fresh ones left. Unless you happen to be at the very select farmers market during the few weeks of the year when the local Royal Blenheims come in (if they come in), you're better off using dried apricots." Russ hasn't had Betty's Blenheims. And he hasn't heard her say: "At some point, you have to do it because you love it, and not because of the money. You can make a living, but that's not why I'm doing this." Betty was the first CCOF certifier in the county: she certified Bill Denevan's organic apple orchard more than thirty years ago.
There is one more thing I'd like to add to Russ Parsons guidance on choosing organics or not. The Environmental Working Group compiled a list of the most contaminated (with pesticides) foods, according to data from the USDA. You can download a handy pocket guide there on the Deadly Dozen and the Cleanest 12.
According to the USDA, the rankings (the higher the number = the worse the contamination), these are how they scored. I would NEVER buy a non-organic peach, potato, or berry. Or any of these in the first list. Consider adding these numbers to your pocket guide, if you print one.
Sweet Bell Peppers 66
Grapes (imported) 64
Sweet Corn 1
Sweet Peas 13
(Those numbers came from Rancho Gordo, posted here.)
So, aside from what I consider a very minor flaw (which perhaps can be remedied in future editions, which I am certain are coming, when people realize how valuable this book is), this book is a real peach. Here's one more tidbit that exemplifies what a great writer Russ Parsons is.
Although trying to cook with the seasons can initially seem like a straitjacket, you'll soon find benefits you never suspected. It sounds paradoxical, but you'll find yourself cooking with more ingredients than you ever had before. One of the problems with having anything whenever you want it is that it is tempting to settle on only the few things that you know you like and never branch out. But why settle for a miserable peach in the dead of winter when you could have a wonderful mandarin, orange, or grapefruit? By abstaining from those few favorite things except when they are at their very best, you'll discover a whole world of flavors that you may never have suspected existed. Even better, you'll find that when it is time once again to try those peaches, they will taste even better than you remembered.
An added benefit is that you'll be saving money. Transportation comes at a price, and so does the scarcity that is the nature of out-of-season fruits and vegetables. Wintertime peaches flown in from Chile not only have little flavor, but they can also cost the earth. When you buy them at the right time of year, however, when the local farmers have filled the markets with them, these fragrant treasures go for pennies. They'll even be cheap enough that you can afford to buy the very best. And that's the time you want to pick a peach.
Go get it. It's the best.
You know who needs this book most? CSA members and people like me, who want to try new things at the market but don't know how to start.
That's all for today: I am headed up to Lindencroft Farm again today and tomorrow. Yay!
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: “I enjoy eating a perfect peach.” — Candice Bergen
Because she's not stupid.
Thanks for visiting.