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Mama's Peach Cobbler: Chinese Origins and Ties to Segregation - The Story of Peaches

When I was growing up in Middle Tennessee we did not often get fresh fruits. Unlike today's grocery stores, the ones in my home town had a small fruit and vegetable section. We could get bananas, apples, and grapes throughout the year, but we often truly relied on seasonable fruits. For some things it was largely canned items. During the holiday season we would receive baskets of tangerines or pears from my father's business associates and it was always a treat. But my favorite fruit, the peach, was a special treat purchased from road side stands on the way home from our annual beach trip to Panama City Beach. I can still remember standing outside eating a fresh peach and the taste overshadowing the extreme discomfort I felt from the peach juices covering my hands and face. Those peaches were largely for eating fresh while canned peaches were used for dessert.

Not just any dessert, THE dessert. My favorite of my mother's dessert was peach cobbler. For years it was one of those desserts I was afraid to attempt. As I began my own food journey, the Southern food scene had not yet exploded. It was relegated to my monthy subscription of Southern Living. I was able to recreate some of my favorite foods from my childhood and those I could not I coaxed out of my Mother when she was well enough to give reveal secrets.

It took me a long time to recreate Peach Cobbler despite it being the most simple of desserts. Prior to finding my way I discovered the most delicious Peach Crisp recipe from my favorite and much dog-earred Southern Living Homestyle cookbook. Though we loved that dessert I still craved the cobbler of my childhood. There was much trial and error mainly in trying many other recipes, many who resembled Miss Truvy's recipe for Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa in Steel Magnolias.

As part of my food pathways project for my Human Geography degree I knew the Southern Peach Cobbler must be part of the story. Why do peaches grow throughout Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida? Who grew the peaches? How has their story become tangled in mine? In my search of the story of the peach, specifically the Georgia peach, I must have scoured 20 articles, journals, and book excerpts. The one that told the story in the most comprehensive way was this Smithsonian article that not only shared the food pathway of the peach, but the story of how it became an icon in the South and the ties it has to the Civil Rights movement here in the United States.

Below is the iconic recipe used by home cooks across the South. Scroll down to get a better understanding of how peaches came to the "New World", became an iconic Southern fruit, and the ties to the American "Black Belt" labor.

Agriculture historian, Thomas Okie, a native of Georgia, has best researched and told this story through his dissertation on the labor and the Georgia peach. Much like other parts of Southern history, it isn't an entirely pretty story, but we'll get to that. The story of the peach does not begin in Georgia. It begins in China. Taoist writings have included the peach as a symbol of longevity for over 3,000 years though there is archeological evidence dating the cultivation of peaches as far back as 6,000 years ago . If you look at this image of Hsi Wang Mu from China you will see she is holding a peach. She is one of the Chinese immortals and part of Chinese mythology. The Immortals are an important aspect in traditional Chinese Feng Shui and even today you may purchase the "Three Immortals", one of which is holding a peach to signify longevity.

With the exchange of culture via the famed silk road that began around 2,000 years ago, peaches found their way through the Middle East to Spain. This is where the story begins to connect with this Southern fruit. Spaniards took peaches to the new world, specifically St. Augustine, Florida. Spaniards arrived in the area in 1513 but did not create a settlement until 1565. It consisted of Spanish men, women, and children and soon grew to include Native Americans and Africans. There peach seeds were planted and the famed peach orchards of the South grew from there.

In 1838 Mary Randolph included six peach recipes in her book The Virgina Housewife. Despite their proliferation and their love by all, including Thomas Jefferson as outlined by Monticello historians, it was not until the late 1800's when peaches began to play into the Southern growing landscape. The Civil War was over and there were many freedmen and women as well as poor white Southerners in need of work. Cotton was still king and in the space of seasonal work left by the cotton plantations, peach growers were able to supply black Southerners with orchard jobs. Though slaves had been freed through the pain of the Civil War, they continued to toil as on Southern soil. These men and women were willing to work and were highly skilled at what they did as farmers on farms and in orchards across the South. They were paid up to $1.00 a day.

Cotton may have been king but many Southerners wanted to create a new identity for the South. Farming would never entirely go away (nor should it), but many wanted to separate from the identity of slavery. Many progressives also embraced modernization though peach growing and harvesting remained a largely manual process. It was also a process that emphasized segregation. Orchard owners would maintain fields made up largely of black workers or poor whites while their packing houses were often filled with white middle class people, including college students and school teachers who wanted a summer supplemental income. As part of the work to create new Southern identities, Georgia small-town politicians seized on the popularity of peaches and began to create festivals and celebrations of the fruit and cemented the state, but really the entire South as the home of peaches.

What about the cobbler? As with much of Southern foods, it is difficult to ascertain a recipe's origins. We know that much of our foods have come from various global sources and also know that many of the foods were perfected by black cooks either in a plantation home or in their own small kitchens as they eeked out an existence of rations and what they could grown for themselves. Cobblers are said to have originated from British settlers in the South who did not have access to some of their more traditional fillings and created this dish with what they had. Sometimes you will see oatmeal in the recipes, though I do not personally use it. Oatmeal was a common food among Scottish settlers who also migrated in large numbers to Southern shores. What we do know is peaches are another global contribution to the Southern table and that this recipe is a family favorite across the South.


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