Friday, October 16, 2020

Food In Color

Epitaph for a Peach by David Mas Masumoto is a memoir about what it's like to be a farmer who loves his land, loves his crops, and feels that family farming is the center of his life. "Agriculture in California is only a hundred years old," he writes, and he feels connected to all of this history. (p. 19). The book is about both change and permanence. A special focus is on the way that a wonderful peach variety can become obsolete, undesirable, not meeting standards: and thus he had to bulldoze the trees in his orchard to plant different types of peaches. A sad story.

The author's family farm in the California Central Valley mainly grows peaches and grapes. His parents live nearby, and help with the farm and with their lifetime of experience. He describes the history of his family, their immigration from Japan, their experience being exiled from California to prison camps during World War II, "While Uncle George fought in Europe and died for freedom, his family lived behind barbed wire with tens of thousands of others in the desert of Arizona." (p. 108). 

He describes the family and community traditions that remain alive in the twenty-first century. Community festivals preserve memories from Japan; for example, the summer festival: "Obon celebrates the idea that ancestors return briefly to visit the living, even if only in memory and symbols. Colorful lanterns light the way for spirits to return home, and the dance symbolizes the joy of this spiritual reunion." (pp. 128-129). 

Also his own way of New Year celebration: "Every New Year’s Day we follow Japanese tradition and open our house to family, friends, and neighbors. Guests begin to arrive by late morning, and the first plates are loaded with sushi, teriyaki chicken, tempura vegetables, and shrimp. We toast with sake and talk about the year past and the year to begin." (p. 225). 

What can go wrong for a farmer growing peaches and grapes? He summarizes: "I’ve lost raisin crops, peach harvests, whole trees and vines. I’ve lost money, time, and my labor. I’ve lost my temper, my patience, and, at times, hope. Most of the time, it’s due to things beyond my control, like the weather, market prices, or insects or disease." (p. 64). 

The peaches from Masumoto's orchard may not be desirable to the wholesalers. The old variety that he grows is delicious and beautiful, he believes, but it doesn't sell well: it's too perishable, it's not a popular color, and it's too fuzzy. In short, it's an obsolete variety: "older, fuzzier varieties of peaches having been replaced by new varieties that do not require as much defuzzing."(p. 100). 

He describes his disappointment when he loses a contract to sell his peaches to a manufacturer of baby food: "I believe in the value of organic baby food. Witnessing the birth of my children, holding their tiny, squirming bodies, was a real turning point in my life. My children provide me with perspective. I do not farm solely to make money but rather with the hope of contributing something to them and to the world. The thought of my peaches feeding infants and toddlers adds to my satisfaction. This summer will be a special harvest." (p. 121). 

Weather is always a challenge. The extreme heat of California summer gives way to autumn rainstorms, which come at the wrong time. Untimely rain causes rot and mildew in grapes that are being dried into raisins. He describes his agony witnessing the rain come down and destroy thousands of dollars worth of these emerging raisins as they sit in paper drying trays between the rows of vines.

Weeds invade the vines and the orchard, but the author realizes that herbicides make everything sterile for long years into the future. Over time, he explains, he came to the view that many wildflowers and native grasses belong in his fields along with the crops. He began to appreciate them for their beauty and see that they were harmless. He writes: "I now have very few weeds on my farm. I removed them in a single day using a very simple method. I didn’t even break into a sweat. I simply redefined what I call a weed." (p. 31). 

Insect pests attack the peaches, but he doesn't want to kill them with pesticide. "I’ve learned never to underestimate the ability of pests to adapt," he writes. He consults with a researcher in entomology, and adapts science-based strategies for fighting pests. He learns the hard way that chemical salesmen do not have his interests at heart -- they just want a quick sale of their dubious products. (p. 50). 

Masumoto is not just a certified organic farmer: he is truly committed to natural farming methods and to high quality produce. At the end, he says, "There’s a Chinese proverb that says, 'A journey begins with the first step.' But it never explains when the journey ends. As the new year begins, I realize that what I seek is the satisfaction of growing my peaches the best I can. I relish the fact that people enjoy the taste of my fruit. Perhaps that’s where the journey ends and another begins." (p. 227). 

Reading this book makes me think about eating ripe, freshly-picked peaches, which I love more than any other fruit. Peach season here in Michigan just ended last month, and I ate many wonderful peaches this year. I also had a few quite good peaches from California, though surely not any grown by Masumoto, who sells to local markets and processors. I have never knowingly tasted the variety of peach he describes so lovingly. I suspect that quite different varieties grow in Michigan, but I suspect that many of the local peach farmers are just as dedicated as Masumoto.

I also love paintings that show the beautiful colors of peaches. The outside of a peach can be many shades of pink-to-red-to-orange-to-peach. The pit is nearly always red. The interior of a peach can be so orange that it matches the yolk of an egg or a glass of orange juice -- but not the deeper color of a ripe apricot or a pumpkin! Peach flesh can nearly match the hue of cooked salmon or can be pale and almost greenish white. Some of the leaves that have turned color this week are the color of vivid peach slices. 

Here are a few images of food that somehow I connect to reading Epitaph for a Peach.

Matisse: Still Life with Peaches and Glass

Gauguin: Still Life with Peaches


Fall grilling: orange salmon and orange maple tree.
A reminder of the color of a peach.

Blog post and photos © 2020 mae sander
Art works from Wikipedia.

21 comments:

Anne in the kitchen said...

Thank you for the book review. I am sure this will find its way to my reading list.

Rajani Rehana said...

Fabulous blog

Jeanie said...

You find the most intriguing books and this one really calls to me -- the story of his work sounds fascinating and what's not to love with a peach? I love the illustrations you shared, too. It looks like a beautiful book in every way.

Carola Bartz said...

I live in California and I love Californian peaches. I usually buy organic ones at the local farmers market and they are delicious. I think local fruit is always the best - so please stick to your peaches from Michigan, because I think they probably are the most delicious in Michigan. All the other ones have had a long journey and I cannot imagine that this does any good to fruit and vegetables.
An interesting book - I put it on my list.

My name is Erika. said...

Sounds really interesting. I bet it was an interesting read. Have a great weekend. Hugs-Erika

Lavender and Lime (http://tandysinclair.com) said...

This is making me long for pay season. We don't get many varieties here but our yellow cling are a favourite in our household.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I like peaches too but rarely have them because they are so sloppy to eat. But they sure are good!

judee said...

Mae,
I totally enjoyed your review of this extremely interesting book about farming, his life, and his culture. Your've certainly interested me to get a copy to read.

judee said...

Wonderful review of an extremely interesting book. I enjoy reading about people's lives and cultures. I'll be looking into this one. Thanks Mae.

Divers and Sundry said...

There are local peach orchards here, and locals wait with excitement for the peaches to ripen. This sounds like an interesting story. The vagaries of public taste as well as issues of perishability are aspects of marketing peaches that I'd never considered.

Deb in Hawaii said...

Great review. I watched a PBS show called Changing Season (last year I think?) that was about his family farm and always meant to read the book.

Jackie McGuinness said...

Gauguin's painting makes my mouth water.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I had no idea there were so many varieties of peaches until I read this review. I remember eating peaches with fuzz on them when I was young. I've not seen any like that lately, though.

I truly enjoyed this review and feel for Masumoto and his organic way of doing things.

Marg said...

His peaches sound delicious. One of things reading your post reminded me is of how few varieties we have easily available to us now because someone decides that one variety or another is deemed to be not popular any more.

Iris Flavia said...

I really should stop reading your blog! Now I want to have a peach and read that book, but I have already way too many books!
This sounds like a very, very interesting read, especially in these times! Oh, weee...

Elza Reads said...

I love peaches! Your review is lovely and the pictures you've shared with are very fitting.

Good job!

Have a good week!

Elza Reads

Laurie C said...

Fresh ripe peaches are one of my favorite foods, too. I guess the short season when we can get them here in Massachusetts makes them even more memorable. I feel bad now for disliking fuzzy peaches!
The book is going on my TBR now. At first, I thought it's not quite a foodie memoir, with all the farming, but then you mentioned all the Japanese food...

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

What a lovely review. Touching to think of his uncle fighting in the war while other members of the family were held in camps. It sounds like he has found great satisfaction in his life of raising fruit.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I read this years ago and enjoyed it as I recall.

Anne@HeadFullofBooks said...

I can't believe how much work farmers do and then to have to put up with new types of crops because of climate change. Ugh. Thanks for sharing this book.My Sunday Salon post with a focus on faith

Laura at Library of Clean Reads said...

There's nothing like biting into a ripe sun-kissed juicy peach! And they smell so lovely.