Filbert, S.C. — Dori Sanders, the best-selling novelist and South Carolina peach farmer, knows why her peaches taste so sweet.
It’s because she talks to them.
” ‘Little peach, honey. Are you ready to come off? ’ ” she says, describing her fruit-whispering process, and how she gingerly places the “big fine ones” in the bottom of the basket before topping them with the smaller, riper specimens.
Sometimes she decorates her harvest with a pretty peach leaf. And she may be the only person you’ll meet who brushes her peaches — with a brush that’s as soft and gentle as a whisper.
The Sanders operation, which she runs with her brother Orestus, is one of a vanishing breed of small, family-owned peach farms. And the Sanders’ dainty Red Havens are a far cry from the pumped-up varieties that are picked green, refrigerated and shipped en masse to big-box stores and grocery chains, from farms on the East Coast and the West.
“They are sweet, fortunately, because of the wonderful sun,” says the author of 1990’s “Clover” and the winner of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s 2011 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award.
On this sweltering June day, Sanders, who is 82 and still drives a tractor, sits in the shade of her family’s roadside produce stand on land their father planted in peaches 100 years ago.
She reminisces about her life in peaches and literature, about all the marvelous things her family cooked with their home-grown fruit, from cobblers, pies and ice cream to jams, jellies and chicken dinners.
And she is unequivocally biased about the rivalry between the Peach and Palmetto states.
In case you haven’t heard: In the aftermath of the Civil War, Georgia became the undisputed king of the American peach industry. But thanks to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, some of the state’s great peach dynasties began to wither and die.
By the 1950s, the Palmetto State had surpassed the Peach State in production of the famous fruit. In recent years, South Carolina has grown twice, and occasionally thrice, as many peaches as the state that named and claimed the Georgia Belle and the Elberta.
“We grow more peaches than Georgia,” Sanders crows. “We are second only to California. Goodbye, Georgia!”
Though she does admit having a soft spot for Georgia Belles, it’s not surprising that she thinks peaches grown in her native soil are superior.
But don’t tell that to Georgian Will McGehee, who inherited a legacy of peaches from both sides of his family.
Via his mother, Ann Pearson McGehee, he is a fifth-generation member of the family that owns Fort Valley-based Pearson Farm, which sells peaches at Atlanta farmers markets every summer.
On his father’s side, McGehee is a descendant of Samuel H. Rumph, who developed the yellow, crimson-cheeked Elberta in 1875 and soon after invented a method of shipping it North in rail cars cooled with enormous blocks of ice.
“The biggest ice house in the world was in little old Fort Valley, Georgia,” McGehee says. “This was decades later, but that is how many peaches were being shipped.”
McGehee claims Middle Georgia peaches taste better because they grow in soil streaked with red clay, which holds moisture even in the heat of summer. This makes for happier trees, he believes.
He also thinks the region’s peaches are sweeter because of its higher average nighttime temperatures. “To me, that is a major determining factor in that the peach doesn’t get to rest,” McGehee says.
“We are the Peach State for a reason,” he declares. “And it’s not really about the size (of the crop). … It’s not about who has the most of anything. It’s about ‘I want to eat it,’ and ‘I think it tastes better.’ “
I conclude my research for this article with a side-by-side taste test of peaches I bought at Your DeKalb Farmers Market: One batch from South Carolina, one from Georgia.
There was — deep breath — not much discernible difference.
Best peaches I’ve had all summer? That’s easy.
The transplendent Red Havens I got from Sanders, ripe and oozing with sweet nectar.
They didn’t need to sit in my kitchen window for a week as I anxiously awaited their ripening. They weren’t meant to be transformed into jam, ice cream or pie.
They still had the kiss of the hand that had picked them that fine South Carolina morning. They were intended to be enjoyed in the splendor of moment. The old fashioned way. Like nature intended.
Dori Sanders’ Bourbon-Laced Tipsy Chicken With Peaches
This easy baked-chicken recipe is dressed up with chopped peaches and a splash of bourbon. “It is so good. It is literally almost to die for,” says Sanders, the best-selling author and South Carolina peach farmer. Sanders’ recipe calls for a half-cup of orange juice. I liked it better with a mixture of lemon and orange juice. Feel free to use either. This dish is wonderful with rice and a simple, green salad.
4 chicken leg quarters (thigh attached)
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
1 1/2 cup (about 6) green onions (both white and green parts), thinly sliced
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup chopped fresh peaches (about 2 medium peaches)
Preheat over to 400 degrees.
Sprinkle chicken quarters with salt and pepper. Place in a large baking dish and set aside.
In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the chopped onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the paprika and all but about 1 tablespoon of the green onion. Stir until the onions are evenly coated with the paprika and cook about 2-3 minutes, or until the green onion is just slightly tender.
Spread the onion mixture over the chicken. Mix the lemon juice, the orange juice and the bourbon together in a cup. Spoon the liquid, and bake for 30 minutes.
Pull the chicken from the oven. Spoon the peaches over the top, and return the dish to the oven to finish cooking (about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken). The chicken should be tender and show no trace of pink near the bone. Place the chicken on a serving dish, drizzle with the pan juices, garnish with remaining green onions, and serve immediately. Serves: 4
— Adapted from “Dori Sanders’ Country Cooking: Recipe & Stories from the Family Farm Stand” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $15.95)
Per serving: 423 calories (percent of calories from fat, 55), 32 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 25 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 145 milligrams cholesterol, 129 milligrams sodium.
Peach-Blackberry Cobbler With Crumble Topping
Many Southern cobbler recipes call for a simple batter topped with fresh fruit. My variation adds a crumbly topping of Georgia pecans, butter, sugar and spice. It is heavenly with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
For the topping
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, packed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans, lightly toasted
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
For the cobbler
5 to 6 medium to large peaches
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fresh blackberries (optional)
Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream for topping (optional)
Make the topping: Place the flour, light brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and 1/3 cup of the pecans in a food processor, and process briefly to grind the pecans, about 30 seconds. Add the butter, and pulse the machine on and off, until the mixture is coarse and crumbly. Dump into a medium bowl, and stir in the remaining pecans. Set aside.
Make the cobbler: Peel, pit and slice peaches into a large bowl, making sure to catch all the juice. Add lemon juice and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Stir to combine.
Heat over to 350 degrees.
Put the butter in a large cast-iron skillet or baking dish, and place in the oven to melt the butter. When the butter is melted, swirl it around to coat the dish.
In a large mixing bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, salt and remaining cup of granulated sugar. Stir in milk and vanilla extract. (Don’t overmix.) Pour the batter over the melted butter. Don’t stir. Top with peaches and blackberries if using. Don’t stir.
Sprinkle the topping evenly all over the top of the dish. Place on a large baking pan (to catch any drips), and bake for 1 hour, or until the cobbler is brown and bubbling and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Serve warm topped with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, if desired. Serves: 8-10
Per serving, based on 8: 511 calories (percent of calories from fat, 39), 6 grams protein, 74 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 23 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 297 milligrams sodium.
Inspired by Cathy Barrow’s “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry” (Norton, $35), I came up with this recipe for peach jam gently infused with basil. You may also try mint, lemon verbena, lavender or thyme.
3 pounds peaches (you want a mixture of ripe and slightly underripe fruit)
4-5 very large sprigs of basil (leave sprigs intact so you can remove them before putting up the preserves)
3 cups granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Peel, pit and slice peaches into a large bowl, making sure to catch all the juices. Stir in lemon juice. Crush basil stems in the palm of your hand, drop in bowl, and stir gently. Top with sugar, and stir to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to macerate from 2 hours to 2 days. (If you are going to allow to sit for more than 12 hours, place in refrigerator. Stir the fruit from time to time.)
When you are ready to make the preserves, place the fruit in a preserving pan or wide, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. (I use a large Le Creuset Dutch oven.) Bring to a boil. Stir regularly from the bottom. After about 5 minutes, remove the basil stems with tongs. Continue cooking and stirring until the jam is quite thick and no longer foaming. This jam state may take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the moisture content. (You may also cook until a candy thermometer reads 220 degrees.)
While the preserves are cooking, prepare four half-pint jars, rings and lids according to manufacturer’s instructions.
When the preserves are ready, pack into the jars. Run a chopstick or bubbler around the sides of the jars to remove air bubbles. Wipe rims clean with a wet paper towel. Place lids and rings on the jar, and process in a water bath for 10 minutes.
Remove from pot, place jars on a dish, and allow to cool for at least 12 hours. Test the seals, and store any unsealed jars in the refrigerator. Label and store in a cool dark cabinet. Makes: 4 half pints
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 45 calories (percent of calories from fat, 0), trace protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, trace sodium.