portrait of a peach in memories from childhood

When I was really young, I thought walnuts came from peach pits, 核桃仁 from 桃核. Since walnuts (and peach pits, my childhood mind added) resembled the squiggles of the human brain, my mom said they’d make me smarter. Once, after I ate a peach, the pit had split open, so I tasted it while my mom wasn’t looking. Inside the pit it was bitter like a walnut, but also soggy and sour. Definitely not a walnut.


Donut peaches always cost twice as much as regular yellow peaches at the store. They’re sickly, sticky sweet, an overwhelming one-note flavor, and they’re always the first to go bad, brown syrup leaking from the skin and metastasizing into deep, rotten bruises. But in 西游记, 蟠桃 gave immortality, the peach garden full of temptation. Surely donut peaches wouldn’t have been written into legend if they had always tasted so flat. I can’t help but wonder what they tasted like before they became donut peaches, before large-scale and yield-focused agriculture turned trees into peach factories, before it became inconceivable that they might have once been the 蟠桃 of unlimited life.


I went to China with my dad when I was seventeen. Before he visited his home village outside 瑞安 outside 温州, we spent a few weeks in 上海, where he caught up with friends from university at a restaurant--a reunion of middle-aged men, solid and secure in their careers. In other words, it was a reunion where the money flowed just as easily as the alcohol; every time the 茅台 passed by my seat as the dishes rotated around the table, I couldn’t help but wrinkle my nose.

At the end of the meal, instead of dessert, they collectively decided to order a basket of eight peaches, one for each of us at the table. They were fat, white, and fuzzy; each of them must have been over half a pound. I expected them to be juicy, luscious, dripping in sweetness. I was almost embarrassed to be eating them at the table: the best peaches are eaten standing up over the sink, juice running down your wrists and elbows, devoured within seconds.

So imagine my surprise when I saw everyone slicing into their peaches without as much of a drop of juice flying anywhere. The flesh was mealy, the skins tough, the juices mostly flavorless, the fruits on the whole a disappointment. Why? I asked my dad later. Why were they so uninspiring, and why did nobody find them dissatisfying? Was the fruit in China just bad? Or was everyone being polite? Surely such expensive peaches must be expected to be at least a little bit delightful. My dad didn’t know either.

I haven’t forgotten about those peaches in the years since--the expectations I had, the disappointment I felt. Today’s 上海, its progress and development, sits atop the ghosts of peach orchards, atop soil that once produced the honey nectar peach, the fruit that made a name for 上海, once upon a time. I wonder, again, what a peach that shaped the contours of culture might taste like.


In America, like so many other things in this country, the value of the peach is more symbolic than anything else. The peach is the state fruit of Georgia, a state which used the sweet innocence of the peach fruit to rehabilitate its national image after the civil war. Today, the cultural link between Georgia and the peach is stronger than ever, even as it comprises less than 0.4% of all Georgia agricultural output as measured by export volume.


My favorite peaches have come from a weekly fruit share that a local farm runs every summer. There’s something special about picking up a box of the week’s harvest over the course of the season rather than choosing a couple of unbruised fruits under the harsh fluorescent lights of the grocery store. As the months pass by, we see the box each week fill up with apricots, then plums, then peaches, then nectarines, all picked just days before. To eat one of these is to indulge in the abundance of summer heat and golden glow of warm, lazy evenings; to eat one of these is to interrupt the dreariness of a work day with the brilliant sweetness of the sun.

They say you only get one good peach a summer, but I have been so, so, lucky.

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