Summer's Over And Life's A Peach


September 05, 1993|By BRAIN SULLAM

Most people think when school begins summer ends.

I personally use the end of peach season to mark the final day of summer.

When I no longer can buy fragrant, freshly picked peaches from roadside stands, I know that another summer is over and fall is about to begin.

In case you are interested, there are a few more weeks of summer left, according to my unconventional method of determining seasonal change.

Debbie Martin, who works at the Bachman Valley Farms stand, told me last week when I stopped by for my weekly purchase of peaches that the Sun Highs have all been picked, as have the nectarines. She said there is another week of Crest Havens and Red Skins.

If conditions remain favorable, Ms. Martin said, the Jersey Queens will be ready for picking next week, and their season might extend into mid-September, which happens to be when the calendar tells us that summer ends.

The coincidence between the calendar and peach season is a pleasant surprise because many years the peach season seems to end abruptly as the cool weather pushes out the hot humid air of summer. (Then apple season begins, but that is another story.)

I have been paying close attention to ripening peaches since my junior year in college, when I finally got a set of wheels.

After using public transportation or my thumb to get around Baltimore, I finally earned enough money to buy a second-hand motorcycle. Thanks to this motorcycle, I learned about the pleasures of biting into a tree-ripened peach and tasting delicate flavors of this ambrosial fruit.

Up until that point in my life, my experience with peaches had been limited to those terribly sweet and smooth canned cling peaches that were favorites with the school system dietitians or the little hard orbs sold at the supermarkets.

I hated the way those bright yellow half-moons used to slide all over the my plate as I stood in the cafeteria line. They left the taste of their heavy sweet syrup on everything from the fish sticks to the mashed potatoes, even though the liquid was supposed to be corralled by the tiny ridges that separated the sections of those wonderfully indestructible plates.

I also detested the way those canned peaches would periodically show up in the middle of a cup of Jello. I liked my strawberry Jello straight, but my mother, always on the lookout for ways to get fruit into my brothers and me, would slip that canned fruit into our desserts.

The only "fresh" peaches I had eaten up to that time were peaches bought in supermarkets. Since most of these peaches were picked green and never properly ripened, they crunched like apples and were absolutely tasteless. On occasion, if I was lucky, I got a store-bought peach that actually smelled like a peach. However, on most occasions, to inhale that delicate, but intoxicating, peach aroma, I had to practically stuff the fruit into my nostrils.

So for nearly two decades of my life, I had been deprived of one of life's great sensory pleasures.

But I lived in blissful ignorance until one late August afternoon when I rode my motorcycle out Falls Road, took a detour on a side road and got lost somewhere around the Pennsylvania line.

It really didn't even dawn on me that I was lost. I was too engrossed in soaking up the wonderful scenery that was passing by. Each time I came over the crest of a hill, a more spectacular tableau of fields and woods unfolded before me.

At some point, I decided I had better check my gas tank to see that I had enough fuel to return to Baltimore. As it turned out, I had very little left and I began searching for a gas station.

Instead of finding a gas station, I came across one of those country stores that sold everything from farm tools to chewing tobacco. Luckily, it also sold gasoline.

After filling up my small tank, I went up to the counter to pay for the two gallons I had pumped. The gray-haired lady took my money and then mentioned that her son had just finished picking peaches from the trees behind the store. Would I like to buy some?

I told her that I only had $2 and could not afford to buy one of the half-peck boxes she was selling.

Don't worry, she said. Just take one of these and try it.

Reaching into a bushel basket behind the wooden counter, she handed me the largest peach I had ever seen. It must have been the size of a softball and weighed more than a half-pound.

Take a bite, she said.

As I brought the peach up to my mouth, the sweet, pungent smell of peach overwhelmed me. I inhaled deeply, and filled my nostrils with that delicate fragrance of a peach at the peak of its ripeness.

As I bit into this peach, the juice squirted out the sides of my mouth. The taste was intoxicating. The texture was firm yet soft -- al dente, as the Italians say.

It didn't take me long to finish that peach.

I bought a half-dozen more. As the woman was carefully bagging the peaches, I told her that I would come back next week for some more.

Don't bother, she said, summer is over and there won't be any more until next year.

I never did get back the following year. But every year since, when I buy the last of the summer's peaches, I think about that afternoon.

I still get shivers up my spine.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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