Peaches, Canned and OtherwisePosted: August 10, 2008
This time of year the air at the Farmers’ Market is flooded with the smell of ripe peaches. Baskets and crates and piles of them sit in the heat, further ripening, bruising with each sampled picking up and putting back down. They are fat and soft, just the right color, juicy, and their smell is worthy of just one more long sniff.
Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, I didn’t have peaches like this to eat. There were orchards here and there and the grocery store carried fresh peaches, but they always seemed to be the size of a walnut, and the fruit was as hard as the woody center. We’d chip off green pieces to go over our Rice Krispies.
Most of the peaches I ate came from a can filled to the tip top with a corn syrupy liquid. They were shiny smooth yellow and came in uniform slices or halves. We might’ve had a little bowl full of slippery slimy peach slices, or Mama would set them on a plate next to our green beans, and the beans would take on peach flavor. We’d have a peach half with cottage cheese in its depression, whey running alongside peach juice in a stream, like yin and yang. It was enough to make any kid pass on the fruit group for the day.
But there was one dish Mama put together using canned peaches that I still have a hankering for today. Chocolate cake covered with peach slices and peach juice.
She’d bake a two-layer devil’s food with her homemade chocolate icing of butter, cocoa, confectioner’s sugar, and cream. Then she’d cut a slice and put it in a bowl. She’d open a can of peaches and put a few slices on top and then pour heavy juice straight from the can on top of it all. It made a nice presentation — rich dark brown slice of crumbly cake, rich wet yellow slices of peaches — opposing textures, complimentary flavors. She’d set the white bowl down on the yellow Formica table. We always used white dishes in our family because Dad was a barber and wanted to see any hairs that might fall onto his plate.
The peach syrup would soak into the devil’s food and the cake would sort of sink and crumble into it. I’d spoon a bite of wet crumbs with a hunk of icing and some juice and let it linger between my tongue and the roof of my mouth so I could absorb the full flavor. I preferred the peach juice mixed with cake over the actual rubbery slices of peaches and cake, but either way it was a memorable dish that Mama liked herself and fed to us many times over the course of my childhood. It’s one of those things that most people curl up their lips and wrinkle their noses over. It’s one of those things most mothers didn’t serve up to their children. It’s one more way my childhood was different. Light and dark…and sweet.