Read When the Orchards "Hit" of Dishes & Beverages of the Old South , free online book, by Martha McCulloch Williams, on ReadCentral.com.

When the peach orchard “hit” it meant joy to the plantation. Peaches had so many charms and there were so many ways of stretching the charms on through winter scarcity. Peach drying was in a sort, a festival, especially if there were a kiln, which made one independent of the weather. It took many hands wielding many sharp knives in fair fruit to keep a kiln of fair size running regularly. This though it were no more than a thing of flat stones and clean clay mud, with paper laid over the mud, and renewed periodically. There was a shed roof, over the kiln, which sat commonly in the edge of the orchard. Black Daddy tended the firing with a couple of active lads to cut and fetch wood, what time they were not fetching in great baskets of peaches.

Yellow peaches, not too ripe but full flavored, made the lightest and sweetest dried fruit. And clingstones were ever so much better for drying than the clear-seed sorts. Some folk took off the peach fuzz with lye they did not, I think, save trouble thereby, and certainly lost somewhat in the flavor of their fruit. Mammy was a past mistress of cutting “cups.” That is to say, half-peaches, with only the seed deftly removed. She sat with the biggest bread tray upon her well cushioned knees, in the midst of the peelers, who as they peeled, dropped their peaches into the tray.

When it over-ran with cups, somebody slimmer and suppler, took it away, and spread the cut fruit, just touching, all over the hot kiln. It must not be too hot just so you couldn’t bear the back of your hand to it was about right. Daddy kept the temperature even, by thrusting into the flues underneath it, long sticks of green wood, kindled well at the flue-mouths. Cups shrank mightily in a little while you could push of an early trayful till it would no more than cover space the size of a big dish, long before dinner time in other words twelve o’clock drying was in full blast by seven. With fruit in gluts, and dropping fast, the kiln was supplemented by scaffolds. Clean planks laid upon trestles, and set in full sunshine, gave excellent accounts of themselves. This of course if the sun shone steadily in showery weather scaffold-drying was no end of trouble. Weather permitting, it made it still makes the finest and most flavorous dried fruit ever eaten.

The black people chose clear-seed peaches for their individual drying. They made merry over splitting the fruit, and placing it, sitting out in front of their cabins in the moonshine, or by torch-light. Washing was all they gave the peach outsides a little thing like a fuzzy rind their palates did not object to. It was just as well, since clear-seed fruit, peeled, shrinks unconscionably to small scrawny knots, inclined to be sticky though it is but just to add, that in cooking, it comes back to almost its original succulence. When the peach-cutting was done, there was commonly a watermelon feast. Especially at Mammy’s house Daddy’s watermelons were famed throughout the county. He gave seed of them sparingly, and if the truth must be told, rather grudgingly but nobody ever brought melons to quite his pitch of perfection. Possibly because he planted for the most part, beside rotting stumps in the new ground, where the earth had to be kept light and clean for tobacco, and where the vines got somewhat of shade, and the roots fed fat upon the richness of virgin soil.

It took eight bushels of ripe fruit, to make one of dry this when the peaches were big and fleshy. Small, seedy sorts demanded ten bushels for one. Unpeeled, the ratio fell to seven for one. But there was seldom any lack of fruit beside the orchard, there were trees up and down all the static fence rows the corner of a worm fence furnishing an ideal seat. Further, every field boasted trees, self-planted, sprung from chance seed vagrantly cast. These volunteer trees often had the very best fruit perhaps because only peaches of superior excellence had been worth carrying a-field. Tilth also helped the field trees bent and often broke under their fruity burdens. It was only when late frosts made half or three parts of the young fruit drop, that we knew how fine and beautiful these field peaches could be. Our trees, being all seedlings, were in a degree, immortelles. Branches, even trunks might bend and break, but the seminal roots sent up new shoots next season, which in another year, bore fruit scantily. Still, these renewals never gave quite such perfect fruit as grew upon vigorous young trees, just come to full bearing.

Here or there a plantation owner like my starch and stately grandfather, turned surplus peaches into brandy. In that happy time excise was only a word in the dictionary, so the yield of certain trees, very free-bearing, of small, deep, red, clear-seed fruit, was allowed to get dead-ripe on the trees, then mashed to a pulp in the cider trough, and put into stands to ferment, then duly distilled. Barrelled, after two years in the lumber house, it was racked into clean barrels, and some part of it converted into “peach and honey,” the favorite gentleman’s tipple. Strained honey was mixed with the brandy in varying proportions the amount depending somewhat upon individual tastes. Some used one measure of honey to three of brandy, others put one to two, still others, half and half, qualifying the sweetness by adding neat brandy at the time of drinking. Peach and honey was kept properly in stone jugs or in demijohns, improved mightily with age, and was, at its best, to the last degree insidious. Newly mixed it was heady, but after a year or more, as smooth as oil, and as mellow. The honey had something to do with final excellence. That which the bees gathered from wild raspberries in flower, being very clear, light-colored and fine-flavored, was in especial request.

I think these peaches of the brandy orchards traced back to those the Indians, Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees, planted in the mountain valleys of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. They got the seed from early Spaniard voyagers to Florida. There was indeed a special Indian peach, as dark-skinned as its namesake, blood-red inside and out, very sweet and full of juice, if permitted to ripen fully but as ill-tasting almost as a green persimmon, if unripe. There were clearstone and clingstone sorts, and one tree differed from another in glory of flavor, even as one star. That was the charm of our seedlings which had further a distinction of flavor no commercial fruit ever yet owned.

August peaches were for drying in September, early, came the Heaths, for preserves, brandy fruit, and so on. October peaches, nearly all clear-seed, made the finest peach butter. Understand, in those days, canning, known as “hermetic sealing,” was still a laboratory process. I wonder if anybody else recalls, as I do, the first editions of fruit cans? They were of tin, tall and straight, with a flaring upstanding tin ruffle around the tops. The ruffle was for holding the sealing wax, into which the edge of the tin top was thrust. They did not last long pretty soon, there were cans of the present shape but sealing them with wax was hard work, likewise uncertain. Women everywhere should rise and call blessed he who invented the self-sealing jar.

Return we to our peach butter. It began in cider the cider from fall apples, very rich and sweet. To boil it down properly required a battery of brass kettles swung over a log fire in the yard, the same as at drying up lard time. Naturally brass kettles were at a premium but luckily everybody did not make peach butter, so it was no strain upon neighborly comity to borrow of such. It took more than half a day to boil down the cider properly kettles were filled up constantly as there was room. By and by, when the contents became almost syrup, peaches went in preferably the late, soft, white ones, dead ripe, very juicy, and nearly as sweet as sugar. After the kettles were full of them, peeled and halved, of course, the boiling went on until the fruit was mushy. Constant stirring helped to make it so. Fresh peaches were added twice, and cooked down until the paddle stood upright in the middle of the kettle. Then came the spicing putting in cloves, mace, bruised ginger, and alspice sparingly, but enough to flavor delicately. If the white peaches ran short, there might be a supplemental butter-making when the Red Octobers came in, at the very last of the month. They were big and handsome, oval, with the richest crimson cheeks, but nothing like so sweet as the white ones. So sugar, or honey, was added scantly, at the end of the boiling down. If it had been put in earlier, it would have added to the danger of burning.

A six-gallon crock of peach butter was no mean household asset indeed it ranked next to the crock of blackberry jam. It was good as a sauce, or lightly sweetened, to spread on crust. As a filling for roly-polys it had but one superior namely dried peaches properly stewed.

Proper stewing meant washing a quart of dry fruit in two waters, soaking overnight, then putting over the fire in the soaking water, covering with a plate to hold the fruit down, and simmering at the least five hours, filling up the kettle from time to time, and adding after the fruit was soft a pound of sugar. Then at the very last spices to taste went in. If the fruit were to be eaten along with meat, as a relish, a cupful of vinegar was added after the sugar. This made it a near approach to the finest sweet pickle. But as Mammy said often: “Dried peaches wus good ernough fer anybody dest by dee sefs, dry so.”

Apple drying commonly came a little before peach. Horse apples, the best and plentiest, ripened in the beginning of August. They were kiln-dried, or scaffold-dried, and much less tedious than peaches since they were sliced thin. When they got very mellow, drying ceased commonly everybody had plenty by that time and the making of apple butter began. It differed little from peach butter in the making, though mightily in taste being of a less piquant flavor. Cider, newly run was essential to any sort of butter hence the beating was done before breakfast. Cider mills were not but cider troughs abounded. They were dug from huge poplar logs, squared outside with the broad axe, and adzed within to a smooth finish. Apples well washed, were beaten in them with round headed wooden pestles, and pressed in slat presses, the pomace laid on clean straw, after the manner of cider pressing in English orchards. The first runnings, somewhat muddy, were best for boiling down, but the clear last runnings drank divinely especially after keeping until there was just the trace of sparkle to them.

Winter cider was commonly allowed to get hard. So was that meant for distilling apple brandy was only second to peach. But a barrel or keg, would be kept sweet for women, children, and ministers either by smoking the inside of a clean barrel well with sulphur before putting in the cider, or by hanging inside a barrel nearly full, a thin muslin bag full of white mustard seed. Cider from russets and pear apples had a peculiar excellence, so was kept for Christmas and other high days.

Pear cider perry we knew only in books. Not through lack of pears but inclination to make it. Pears were dried the same as other fruit, but commonly packed down after drying in sugar. Thus they were esteemed nearly as good as peach chips, or even peach leather.

Peach chips were sliced thin, packed down in their own weight of sugar and let stand twenty-four hours to toughen. Then the syrup was drained from them, boiled, skimmed clean, spiced with mace and lemon peel, and the slices dropped into it a few at a time and cooked until sweet through. Then they were skimmed out, spread on dishes well sprinkled with sugar, dredged with more sugar, set under glass in sunshine and turned daily until dry. They were delicious, and served as other confections passed around with nuts and wine, or eaten instead of candy.

So were cherries, dried in exactly the same manner, after pitting. When dried without sugar they were used for cooking. So also were tomato figs. Yellow tomatoes, smooth and even were best but red ones answered the meatier the better. After scalding, peeling, soaking an hour in clear lime-water to harden, they were rinsed clean, then dropped in thick boiling syrup, a few at a time, simmered an hour, then skimmed out, drained, sugared and dried under glass in the sun, or failing sunshine, upon dishes in a very slow oven. Full-dry, they were packed down in powdered sugar, in glass jars kept tightly closed. Unless thus kept they had a knack of turning sticky which defeated the purpose of their creation.

Peach leather may not appeal to this day of many sweets but it was good indeed back in the spare elder time. To make it the very ripest, softest peaches were peeled, and mashed smooth, working quickly so the pulp might not color too deeply, then spread an inch thick upon large dishes or even clean boards, and dried slowly in sunshine or the oven. After it was full-dry, came the cutting into inch-strips. This took a very sharp knife and a steady hand. Then the strips were coiled edgewise into flat rounds, with sugar between the rounds of the coils, which had to be packed down in more sugar and kept close, to save them from dampness, which meant ruin.

If you had a fond and extravagant grandmother, you were almost sure to have also a clove apple. That is to say, a fine firm winter apple, stuck as full of cloves as it could hold, then allowed to dry very, very slowly, in air neither hot nor cold. The cloves banished decay their fragrance joined to the fruity scent of the apple, certainly set off things kept in the drawer with the apple. The applemakers justified their extravagance cloves cost money, then as now by asserting a belief in clove apples as sovereign against mildew or moths which may have had a color of reason.

The quince tree is the clown of the orchard, growing twisted and writhing, as though hating a straight line. Notwithstanding, its fruit, and the uses thereof, set the hall mark of housewifery. Especially in the matter of jelly-making and marmalade. Further a quince pudding is in the nature of an experience so few have ever heard of it, so much fewer made or tasted it. The making requires very ripe quinces begin by scrubbing them clean of fuzz, then set them in a deep pan, cover, after adding a tablespoonful of water, and bake slowly until very soft. Scrape out the pulp, throw away cores and skin. To a pint of pulp take four eggs, beat the yolks light with three cups of sugar and a cup of creamed butter, add the quince pulp, a little mace broken small or grated nutmeg, then half a cup of cream, and the egg-whites beaten stiff. Bake in a deep pan, and serve hot with hard or wine sauce.

Here are some fine points of jelly-making learned in that long ago. To make the finest, clearest jelly, cook but little at a time. A large kettleful will never have the color and brightness of two or three glasses. Never undertake to make jelly of inferior fruit that which is unripe or over-ripe, or has begun to sour. Wash clean, and drain paring is not only waste work, but in a measure lessens flavor. Put a little water with the fruit when you begin cooking it cook rather slowly so there shall be no scorching, and drain out rather than press out the juice. Draining is much freer if the fruit is spread thin, rather than dumped compactly in a bag. Double cheese cloth sewed fast over stout wire, and laid on top of a wide bowl, makes a fine jelly drainer one cheap enough to be thrown away when discolored. A discolored bag, by the way, makes jelly a bit darker. If there is no pressure flannel is not required.

Plenty as fruit was with us, Mammy made jelly and marmalade from the same quinces. They were well washed, peeled, quartered and the cores removed, then the quarters boiled until soft in water to half-cover them, skimmed out, mashed smooth with their own weight of sugar, and spices to taste, then cooked very slowly until the spoon stood upright in the mass, after which it went into glass jars, and had a brandy paper laid duly on top.

Cores and paring were boiled to rags in water to fully cover them, then strained out, the water strained again, and added to that in which the fruit had boiled. Sugar was added a pound to the pint of juice. But first the juice was brought to a boil, and skimmed very clean. The sugar, heated without scorching, went in, and cooking continued until the drop on the tip of the spoon jellied as it fell. Mammy hated jelly that ran it must cut like butter to reach her standard. Occasionally she flavored it with ginger boiling the bruised root with the cores but only occasionally, as ginger would make the jelly darker. Occasionally also she cooked apples, usually fall pippins, with the quinces, thus increasing the bulk of both jelly and marmalade, with hardly a sensible diminution of flavor.

All here written applies equally to every sort of fruit jelly apple, peach, currant, the whole family of berries. Mammy never knew it, but I myself have found the oven at half-heat a very present help in jelly-making. Fruit well prepared, and put into a stone or agate vessel, covered and baked gently for a time proportionate to its bulk, yields all its juice, and it seems to me clearer juice, than when stewed in the time-honored brass kettle. Hot sugar helps to jellying quickly and the more haste there, the lighter and brighter the result. Gelatin in fruit jellies I never use it increases the product sensibly, but that is more than offset by the decrease in quality.