Stephen didn’t intend to be a peach whisperer. Growing up in Georgia, he took them for granted, but when he and Jessica, his Seattle-born wife, moved to nearby Nashville, he was shocked that the peaches they were eating were woefully subpar. When the couple took a trip back to Georgia and Jessica tried her first perfectly ripe peach just off the tree, she was smitten.
“We thought, what if we could bring these peaches to Nashville?” Stephen says. “We would cut out the middleman, and people could eat the fruit at peak freshness and maximum sweetness.” They would eliminate the grocery store. With no hardcore plan, the couple hauled their first batch back to Nashville in Stephen’s 1964 Jeep Gladiator and sold the peaches at a local market, right off the back of the truck.
That first summer, the Roses held on to their full-time jobs, but they worked tirelessly on evenings and weekends, traveling back and forth to Fort Valley, Ga., to pick up the fruit from Pearson Farm and bring it back to their growing base of Nashville consumers, to be sold within 24 hours of picking. They sold nearly 20,000 pounds of peaches that year, a success that compelled them to quit their day jobs the following summer to work solely on packing and selling peaches. The demand in Nashville was so great that they got to thinking about all the small towns nearby, and the concept of doing a peach truck tour took hold. With the help of friends and a fleet of semi-trucks, the official Peach Truck tour launched in the summer of 2013, hitting more than 100 towns from Texas to Michigan to Pennsylvania every day from May to August.
According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, Georgia grows more than 80 million pounds of peaches each year, most of which come from small, family-operated farms. Cold winters; hot, humid summers and Georgia’s rich clay soil are ideal conditions for growing peaches. Peach trees require a certain number of chill hours — ideally, winters that are under 45 degrees — for optimal growth, but with the warming climate in Georgia and through the Southeast, growers have had to adjust.
“When I was growing up, we had many late-variety peaches that required over 1,000 hours of chill,” says Will McGehee, the fifth-generation grower at Pearson Farm and marketing director of the Georgia Peach Council. “Today, we are maxed out at 800-hour varieties. We’ve had to make the adjustment down in order to set the crop.”
Despite the shift in climate, peach season still starts in May with clingstones, aptly named because their flesh sticks to the pit, and eventually segues into easy-to-eat freestones. By mid-August, Georgia peach season is over.
The Peach Truck has been singularly successful with Georgia’s famed Elberta peach, which lost favor with supermarkets for its odd shape, yellow color and short shelf life. Don’t be fooled: The Elberta is one of the sweetest peaches there is. “People think peaches have to be pretty, but the ugly Elberta is unbelievable and tastes like candy,” says Stephen.
Asked how to measure the success of the Peach Truck and its impact on the Georgia peach industry, McGehee says you have to look at the trees. “You can tell the health of the industry by who is planting trees, and how many,” he says. “When things are going well and there’s excitement, you start planting a lot.”
For the past three decades, according to McGehee, the industry has been stagnant. But in the past few years, 170,000 new trees were planted, an increase of 27 percent, which amounts to roughly 85 million additional peaches in the market each year. McGehee says growers chalk it up to the Peach Truck buzz. “They’ve made it cool to stand in line and wait to buy a 25-pound box of peaches! It’s a dream come true for us.” (They’ve apparently inspired at least one other business: The Georgia Peach Truck, which Brandon Smith started in 2016 as an extension of an Atlanta farmers market program, is heading up the East Coast this month and next, with stops in 11 states plus the District.)
It’s not just consumers who geek out over the Peach Truck peaches. Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams uses them every summer to make such flavors as peach buttermilk tart ice cream and peach lassi frozen yogurt.
“If you’ve ever had a perfect peach, you’ll understand,” she says. “It’s like heaven and earth collide.” Nashville chef Sean Brock praises the way the peaches are selected and handled, equating it to the care taken with fruit in Japan. “It has become a source of pride in Nashville to feature Peach Truck peaches on a restaurant menu,” he says, “because they’re the most floral and delicious peaches available.”
For those who aren’t on the Peach Truck tour route, the Roses say they take care to ship the peaches so they arrive perfectly intact and ready to ripen. The peaches are shipped directly from the farm the day they are picked, and they arrive within three days of picking. Despite the custom-made packaging and attention to detail, things don’t always go as planned.
“At the end of the day, we’re always at the mercy of the shipping process and Mother Nature,” Stephen says. “We never want to have peaches arrive to the customer in less than perfect condition, but we always make it right in those cases.”
When your peaches do arrive, they’ll be slightly firm, almost like an avocado. It’s best to leave the peaches out on the kitchen counter and check them daily. When the peach gives a little, it’s ready to eat. You can also use your nose. “Scent is the best indicator of flavor,” Jessica says. If you have more peaches than you can eat in a day, you can refrigerate ripened peaches for almost two weeks. Just don’t expect hard peaches to ripen in the fridge; instead, they’ll get mealy — the same issue that occurs with most subpar supermarket peaches.
Over the past few years, the peach community has been asking for recipes to expand beyond hand-to-mouth eating. That was the impetus for the Roses’ new cookbook, aptly named “The Peach Truck Cookbook” (2019, Scribner). “After seven summers of cooking with peaches ourselves in our kitchen, we had a lot of ideas,” Jessica says. “Peaches often get stuck in the dessert category, and we wanted to highlight the diversity of the queen of fruits.”
While peaches are certainly ideal in classics like peach pie and peach jam, there is no limit to what can be made with the fruit, with possibilities as diverse as sticky glazed ribs, pickled peach deviled eggs and peach tamales. Peaches roasted alongside chicken get used to make a deeply flavorful and fresh-tasting sauce for the crisp chicken. A crunchy, vibrant, Asian-inspired peach salad includes watermelon, cucumbers and a tangle of fresh herbs and crunchy peanuts — perfect to accompany any simple grilled protein, whether it’s fish, chicken, duck or beef. Even overripe peaches find their way into versatile peach simple syrup to spruce up summer beverages, or to make supremely silky peach butter.
Enjoy them every which way while you can. Because the only problem with perfect peaches is that their season, as sweet as it is, is fleeting.
Heddings is a food writer and contributing editor to Food & Wine magazine.
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