Bitter Southerner's new 'Peach' book is a study of Southern nostalgia

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Driving down the road, a peach in each hand.

According to the foreword for "Peach," Amanda Greene is a hair obsessed with peaches. Greene's photo records of the ephemeral Southern fruit were the impetus behind the gorgeous new Bitter Southerner book.

"It's the culmination of I don't know how many years' work," said Kyle Tibbs Jones, co-founder of the Bitter Southerner, a website with a publishing arm, both focused on the beauty, grit and endlessly complicated nature of the American South.

Jones said Greene has been documenting roadside stands, orchards and everything else that makes up peach season since the site published "Queen of Delicacies," a 2021 story about the fruit's history and culture in the South.

But the truth is that Greene's peach fascination goes much deeper than that. It's rooted in her childhood, in the ruby-peach hues of her grandmother's cobbler, fragrant with fruited steam. It's along country roads and Southern highways. 

"For me, it starts with the roadside stand," Greene said. "Specifically I like the hand-painted wooden signs."

On page 10 of "Peach" is a well-worn black and white polaroid of a peach stand with just such a sign, Georgia pines towering overhead. That's an image Greene snapped in the '90s. Next to it is a poem by Li-Young Lee called "From Blossoms," which is about peaches but also not. 

"O, to take what we love inside, to carry within us an orchard, to eat not only the skin, but the shade, not only the sugar, but the days, to hold the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into the round jubilance of peach," it reads. 

That poem was read at Greene's wedding. 

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As for the photo, Greene discovered it while rummaging through a box for who knows what, she said.

"I came across it and had this realization that you are who you were, and there's no getting around my being drawn to that sort of thing," she said. 

Peaches are part of growing up in the South. They're in the ice cream, they're in the pies, they're sending rivulets of cooling juice down your mosquito-bitten arm.

"I'm sentimental," Greene said. "I guess I can't get around that, either."

Part of the allure of peach season is that truly tree-ripened local peaches have such a short window. They're tender and easily bruised. They require patience and gentle hands. 

South Carolina peaches at a roadside stand.

"It ripens in perfection only in the glow of a midsummer’s sun; and the hotter the weather, the more delicious are its rich, cooling juices," naturalist James Alexander Fulton wrote in "Peach Culture" in 1870. "It is eminently suited to the season. When the weather is so hot that even eating is a labor, the peach is acceptable, for it melts in the mouth without exertion. It is the Queen of Delicacies."

That quote inspired Shane Mitchell's 2021 story, a piece for which Greene was enlisted to take photos.

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"And when the creative director asked for shots, she sent him about 200," Jones said. 

"I don't want to say I went overboard, but I took every opportunity I had," Greene said. 

That overabundance fed what Jones said is the perfect coffee-table ode to the South's favorite fruit. Inside are recipes from Sean Brock, Anne Byrn and several other Southern food luminaries. But the focus is on little more than the simple pleasures of the peach. 

The ephemeral nature of peaches is part of what makes them so precious to Southerners.

"It feels like an old-fashioned book," Jones said. "It brings in a little bit of that simpler time when we're living through times that are not so simple at all."

Sean Brock's pickled peaches

Speaking of simple, this is an easy way to preserve ripe summer peaches if you've bought a bushel and have eaten as many as you can.

To blanch and peel peaches, treat them as you would if you were peeling potatoes: cut a small x in the very base of the peach, plunge them into boiling water for about 30 seconds, and then cool them in ice water.

Reprinted with permission from "Peach," BS Publishing.

Ingredients 

12 peaches (blanched and peeled)

3 cups water

3 1/2 cups white vinegar

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 stalk of lemongrass (bruised & chopped)

1 tablespoon grated (peeled) ginger

Pinch of mace

10 allspice berries

2 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

15 peppercorns

Instructions

Place all ingredients except peaches in a nonreactive pot and bring to a boil. Pour over the peaches and allow to sit at room temperature for at least one month.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com