David Mas Masumoto is best known for his 1995 book, Epitaph for a Peach, a gracefully written memoir about the love he and his father, both farmers, felt for the delicious but resolutely uncommercial Suncrest peach. Far from being a gravestone inscription, however, the book thrust both the Suncrest and Mas Masumoto into the limelight. Both became sought-after...the Suncrest for the few weeks each summer when it was available, and Masumoto as a farmer-author memoirist who would go on to write five more books, all touching on his experiences and lineage as a third-generation Japanese-American farmer on an eighty-acre organic fruit farm in California's Central Valley.
As he sums up his family's story in the introduction, titled "Dating a Peach,"
"My grandparents emigrated from Japan as farmworkers and rented land in this valley. During World War II, the Masumoto family was relocated and imprisoned in a desolate internment camp because of their Japanese ancestry. My father bought the farm in 1948 and raised a family. Like many good farm kids, I ran off to college (UC Berkeley) but returned and started working alongside my father."
His wife, Marcy, grew up on a goat dairy farm in Wisconsin, "milking the herd twice a day, every day," harder work than farming, by his lights, since "at least peaches take some of the winter off."
Now, the fourth generation is taking its place, as their daughter, "college-educated Nikiko is taking over the family farm, part of a new generation on the land and a new role for women."
The Masumotos' organic farm is made up of 25 acres of peach and nectarine trees, plus 35 acres planted in grapes grown for raisins. It's a place the family loves deeply, but it's no rural idyll. Fruit, as David describes it, is a demanding partner.
"What we've discovered is that great peaches crave attention. Each year we enter into a high-maintenance relationship that yields high rewards, some economic, others emotional. It's like dating our farm's seven peach varieties (and three nectarine types) simultaneously. It's frequently exhausting, most of the time fulfilling and occasionally confusing and humbling. But we don't have a choice: we are committed to a risky affair and take this calling seriously and responsibly."
Before diving into the recipes, Nikiko takes readers through a peach primer, explaining what makes a peach great as well as what can leave it like a potato in a peach suit: bland, mealy, juiceless, and sadly, much too familiar. Turns out picking fruit green is the biggest culprit, especially if the fruit is then left in cold storage for months. Returned to room temperature, the cell walls break down and the result is more damp cotton ball than juicy peach. She teaches the difference between yellow flesh and white flesh, cling and freestone, explains the ways to gauge ripeness from "firm" to "gusher" and reveals the best ways of storing and ripening fruit.
The Masumotos showcase their "Magnificent Seven," the seven varieties of peaches grown in their orchard. Right now, the Flavor Crests are in full swing, soon to be followed by the Sun Crests, the peach that put both David and his daughters through college (first on fruit sales, then, perhaps, on the royalties for Epitaph for a Peach).
Cool drinks are a crucial part of the day when you're working outside in temperatures that routinely top 100ºF, so the book starts with thirst-quenching recipes for Ginger-Peach Soda, Peach Agua Fresca, and Peach-Mint Lassi, followed by Summer Sangria and Peach Margaritas. Then it's on to soups, like the chilled Peach Gazpacho, below, and an intriguing Cold Peach Soup made with carrots, lime juice, Greek yogurt, fresh ginger root, and fresh peach puree, followed by savory salads, sides, and main dishes. Of course, there are desserts, too--Peach-Walnut Strudel, Orange-Phyllo Cups, Peach Shortcake, French Peach Shortcake, Old-Fashioned Peach Pie, and more.
Interspersed with the recipes are short essays on all aspects of farming life, from sweat (farmers sweat a lot--as David writes, "The only parts of my clothes that are never soaked with my sweat are the belt loops on my pants"), farmworker relations and weeds, to bug pheromones, the night shift of jamming and preserving the harvest after the day's work in the orchard, and finally "Peach Porn," where David takes a thoughtful look at how the marketplace's idea of the perfect fruit keeps getting bigger, firmer, and brighter, while at the same time, "complicated issues of social justice, the environment, and the harsh economics of farming are quickly lost in the alluring imagery of virgin orchards and peaches gently kissed by the morning dew."
Recipe: Peach Gazpacho
Inspiration occasionally manifests itself in a mad scientist sort of fashion. This recipe is proof of that. I locked myself in the kitchen with a basket of vegetables from the refrigerator and a bucket of peaches until I came up with an exciting peach dish. With wild determination and some heat, a peach version of Spain’s popular summer soup was born. I remember when my mom came home that day and I rushed out to greet her with a huge spoonful of my recent creation: a willing tester, my mom’s eyes lit up with her first gulp. The experiment worked! Enjoy this savory soup ice cold as a starter or as a refresher between courses. -- Nikiko Masumoto
Makes about 6 cups; serves 6 to 8
6 soft to gushy peaches (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled, pitted, and quartered
1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into chunks
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon champagne or golden balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 to 3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
Red bell pepper slices and avocado slices, for garnish (optional)
1. In a food processor, combine the peaches, cucumber, garlic, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, and 1/2 cup water and pulse until coarsely pureed. Thin with the remaining 1/4 cup water if needed for a good consistency. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours to chill thoroughly.
2. Just before serving, taste and adjust the seasoning with more vinegar, salt, and pepper if needed. Stir in the cilantro. Ladle into bowls, drizzle each serving with a little oil, and garnish with the bell pepper and avocado. Serve at once.
Marcy, Nikiko & David Mas Masumoto will be discussing The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm and signing books on Sat., July 13, from 3-4 p.m. at Omnivore Books in San Francisco.