As I look at important calendar dates throughout the year— Christmas, Easter, my anniversary, my wife’s birthday, my kid’s birthdays, and home football games— there is one date that I take just as seriously as those, but it never falls on a set day of the week during a specific month.
I can almost always narrow this very important calendar date to the month of June, but it’s not a first-Monday-in-June sort of date, or even a specific day such as June 15th or 29th. Every year it’s different, but when that day finally comes, it’s a joyous day, indeed.
The June date that I anticipate with great fervor is the first day we gain access to Chilton County, Alabama peaches.
Peaches always announce the beginning of summer. Blackberries, blueberries, and sweet corn are soon to follow, but nothing tastes like summer as much as peaches. And my favorite peaches come from right next door in Chilton County, Alabama.
My wife and I have a tag team system with peaches.
As soon as they start arriving at local markets, I purchase a few pounds of peaches.
She peels, pits, slices, and macerates them. I eat them. This process repeats every other day or so. OK, so she has the worse end of the deal, but she doesn’t usually read this column, so don’t spoil it for me and go blabbing to her.
If it’s summer, there is almost always a large bowl of peaches macerating in my refrigerator. I can put a few in an empty cereal bowl and eat them as a snack or use them as a topping for ice cream or cake.
When we have company, I just serve a bowl of macerated peaches at the end of the meal. It’s hard to find anything that tastes better or that is as simple.
It’s just two ingredients— peaches and a little bit of sugar.
The amount of sugar varies depending on how sweet the peaches are. The less sugar, the better.
We just sprinkle a little sugar on the freshly cut peaches, toss them a bit, and place them in the refrigerator. Within an hour or so, they will have made their own juice and are ready to be eaten.
If I were to make a list of my top ten fruits, peaches would not only hold the number one spot, but— I love them so much— I would fill spots one through five with peaches. Seriously. Nothing comes close to my tastes. Clementinos from Sicily would be sixth, followed by fresh Louisiana strawberries, local blackberries, blueberries, and bananas.
Two days ago, my niece, Skye St. John— an excellent cook— made a social media post that showed a batch of fresh peach jam being reduced on her stovetop. I texted her immediately, “I want some of that peach jam.”
Typically I am not so bold as to ask for something like that outright, but she is family, and it was the first batch of peaches for the year. It couldn’t hurt to take a shot.
She texted back in short order that she would send a jar down from Madison to Hattiesburg with my brother who was making the trek the next day.
My brother and I had breakfast with our mother early the next morning, and then went to my house to hang out before church.
I reminded him about the peach jam in his truck, and— even though we had eaten a full breakfast minutes earlier— offered to make us some buttered toast and jam to see if it tasted as good as it looked.
He declined, but I’ve known him for 57 years and so I toasted a slice for him, anyway.
A few slices of toast with jam is a go-to snack for me. I put a few pats of butter on a couple of slices of wheat bread sprinkle just a tiny bit of salt on them and toast the bread.
I typically go with peach or blackberry jam. That, and a cold glass of milk, any time of the day or night, is much better to me than most traditional in-between-meal snacks. I pulled the two pieces of buttered toast out of the oven and spread some of the homemade jam on them.
The consistency and viscosity of the jam was perfect— not too tight and not too watery. I placed a piece of toast on his plate, but he declined.
I was a little upset about that at first.
After all, I had gone to the trouble of making him a slice.
And then I took a bite of my toast and was instantly OK with him not eating his toast because it meant more for me.
Seriously, it was I-am-about-to-hide-this-jar-of-peach-jam-in-the-best-hiding-place-I-can-find-so-no-one-in-my-family-gets-even-a-teaspoon-of-it good.
Sometimes I can take a bite of a particular food item or recipe and instantly know that I am about to establish a long term— if not lifetime— relationship with that foodstuff.
This peach jam recipe and I had instantly fallen head over heels in love with each other and I was about to go into food conservation/preservation, and full-on stealth mode with it. I do that with certain items.
When Allan Benton sends his sausage to me through a friend who happens to be visiting his shop and driving back home to Hattiesburg, I treat it like gold, and only break it out for special occasions for very special people (mostly— but not always— my immediate family).
When I bring pecorino cheese back from Tuscany, it goes into a secret slot way in the back of our secondary refrigerator where there will be little to no chance that anyone will find it. One has to be deemed “cheeseworthy” for me to break it out.
This peach jam was about to go to the top of the list in the food conservation/preservation department. I was already thinking about a spot where I could stash it. I love my brother, and he is certainly “jamworthy,” but the fact that he wasn’t interested in his toast was perfectly fine with me.
Though, as I finished the last bite of my toast and peach jam, and was about to pick up his, I had a sudden pang of guilt, and halfheartedly said, “Are you sure you don’t want your toast? It’s OK if you don’t. Seriously, no big deal. I’ll eat it.”
“I’ll try a bite,” he said, and in that moment I was truly torn. I wanted him to taste how good this peach jam was, but I also wasn’t going to mind finishing his portion.
He took a bite, and then another, and then what I knew would probably happen, happened— he finished it in quick order.
Her peach jam recipe was spot-on good. It wasn’t too sweet, and the consistency was perfect. All too many times, I’ll eat at restaurants that make their own jams and preserves, and they are watery and overly sweet— almost like chunky fruit juice.
I’ve always believed, if you can’t make homemade jam better than a store-bought variety, then just purchase the ready-made kind and stop serving a runny, watery, sub-par product.
This jam was some of the best jam I had ever eaten. I made three slices of toast and jam as a late-night snack later that day, and by the time I went to bed, there was only a half of a jar left on the first day. I asked for the recipe the next day.
Peaches are on their way. Life is good. Onward.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef, columnist and author. And perhaps more importantly, he’s a husband, father, brother, and son. For more than 20 years he has written a weekly syndicated newspaper column, now appearing each week in The PineBelt NEWS.