by Sarah West
A book I read last summer presented an idea that has lingered with me since. The author, a farmer in Upstate New York, recalled something a Frenchman had told her years ago when she was in his country on a writing assignment: Food, he said, is the first wealth. And we can be certain that by food he did not mean supermarket fare. He meant, as any self-respecting Frenchman would, the manifestation of rich soil, of biodiversity, of skilled agriculture and culinary prowess.
To work in the rain and the wind and the sun, to feel the transforming soil, to plant weightless seeds and harvest pounds of food, to know true freshness and life-giving rot, to have the pleasure of a pantry filled with the literal fruits of your labor is more satisfying and, arguably, more certain than the imaginary wealth of our currency. Truly, we love money: holding it, hoarding it, and wielding its power—it fuels our contemporary way of life. But our cells sing in the presence of authentic food. Vibrant food shapes cultures, inspires ingenuity, and, ultimately, teaches us who we are. It is our longest and greatest love.
For many, mustard greens or lettuce may not be convincing substitutes for dollars or ducats, but golden hued apricots and peaches, royal purple plums or lacquer red cherries might sway even the skeptics. Named stone fruits for their large, central seeds, these fruits have heft, a gravity that foretells the thick, tangy sugar of their flesh. Arranged on a plate, they look like a pile of treasure.
It is not known when the first nugget of gold was found nor when the first peach or apricot was tasted, but it is possible, even likely, that stone fruits such as these dazzled our species first. Indigenous to various locations in Central Asia with ranges that stretch into Central Europe and China, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches and their close cousin, almonds, are some of the earliest cultivated fruits. Urban civilization may have been influenced by a desire for them and other ancient tree-fruits: annual seed crops are light to carry and will grow in a matter of months; a taste for almonds or dates means planting orchards and waiting a few years for them to bear. It means staying in that place indefinitely.
Historical consensus is that peaches and apricots were first domesticated in China. Brought to Europe via the silk road through Persia and Armenia, they picked up their botanical misnomers: Prunus persica for peaches, mistakenly thought to hail from Persia, and Prunus armeniaca for apricots, long associated with Armenia, though densities of wild stands suggest Chinese origin.
Not surprisingly, peaches are a powerful symbol in Chinese culture and mythology, signifying enduring health and immortality. In the story of the Peach Blossom Land (421 A.D.), a fisherman living in a time of political upheaval one day finds himself floating into a blooming peach forest. Transfixed by a landscape overcome with blossoms, he inadvertently follows the river to its source, where he notices a narrow opening in the rocks. On the other side of the opening he finds a utopian society of Chinese people living harmoniously with each other and wild nature—folks who shunned the outside world generations ago and live unconcerned by the civilization they left behind in this land beyond the peach blossoms.
Peaches and their tantalizing aromas may or may not guard mythical utopias, but it is clear to anyone who swoons at the first bite that these fruits hold an ancient power over us—one that lingers strongly in its country of origin. China is by far the leading producer of the global peach crop, growing nearly ten times our domestic production (10.82 million metric tons to our 1.26 in 2010), 80% of which remains in China and is sold for fresh eating. That’s a serious amount of peaches.
The taste of a peach was beloved long before the first gold coin landed in our palm, and trumps our currency still, in that we hand it over in exchange for them, to feel their soft velvety weight as we place them in a sack. The pleasure of eating a full-flavored, perfectly ripe peach is a fortune not soon forgotten, one that has traveled in our care from the prehistoric peach forests of China through millennia of orchards, across discontent and utopia, golden and paper money, so that we may know it today.