Around Christmas a couple of years ago I began to miss the pickled peaches. They were associated in my mind with childhood holidays and good times, but it must have been decades since I had last tasted them. Thinking I might take some to the family gathering in East Texas, I checked out the specialty-foods section at several markets in Austin: Not a jar was to be found. Like many another product of the home-canning culture, pickled peaches had, it seemed, simply disappeared.
My memory of pickled peaches goes back some fifty years to my paternal grandmother’s holiday feasts. When the men and children were called to the dining room, we would ooh and aah over the ten or more different pies Grandma had baked, each one a favorite of a grandchild who had traveled many miles to be with her. On the table, along with potatoes and various vegetable dishes, would be a beef roast and a ham. While everyone waited patiently for Grandpa to finish his ad-libbed prayer, my half-closed eyes would gravitate to a bowl of whole golden peaches studded with cloves. Yum. Almost too beautiful to eat, they were the perfect festive relish for the meats.
My grandparents Hattie Mae and Chester Rosson had raised six children during the Depression, feeding everyone well on whatever the family farm near Crockett yielded—meat from cattle, pigs, and chickens (as well as rabbits and squirrels), vegetables from an extensive garden, and fruits grown in a compact orchard. Grandma Rosson saw to it that nobody starved in the winter by canning the vegetables, preserving the fruits, and transforming humdrum cucumbers and okra into delicious pickles. When the Elberta peaches came in, she would prepare the pickled peaches. None of the several quart jars she canned would be touched until the winter, for the peaches had to marinate for months to lose their sharp, vinegary edge.
Grandma Rosson was the kind of cook who keeps a repertory of basic recipes in her head—adding a “big pinch” of this or a “small handful” of that—and never writes anything down. It dawned on me that when she passed on, pickled peaches departed the family too, and I became determined to bring them back to our holiday table in her memory. In hopes of reconstructing her recipe, I got in touch with her daughters—my aunts Vera, Loveta, and Laverne—and Laverne, the youngest, found a recipe in an old cookbook that might have belonged to her mother. After comparing it with recipes in other vintage cookbooks, I’ve discovered that pickled peaches were an old-time Southern staple, and all the recipes are basically the same. That said, this one tastes like home to me.
2 teaspoons allspice
4 sticks cinnamon
8 lbs. firm peaches (about 24 medium-sized, 32 small)
juice of 2 large lemons
1 quart white vinegar
6 3/4 cups sugar
Tie 2 tablespoons of cloves, the allspice, and the cinnamon sticks in a cheesecloth bag. Peel peaches, place in a large bowl, and drizzle with lemon juice to prevent discoloration.
In a large pot, boil vinegar and sugar for 5 minutes, then skim off bubbles. Add spices and peaches, and simmer until they can easily be pierced to the pit with a toothpick, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and allow to plump up overnight at room temperature.
The next day, stud each peach with a couple of cloves. Return peaches to syrup, bring to the boiling point again, and then pack into hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace. Cover with syrup, maintaining the headspace. Gently shake jars to remove air bubbles, then cover with self-sealing lids. Yields 3 quarts.