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 In short, it's an obsolete variety: "older, fuzzier varieties of peaches having been replaced by new varieties that do not require as much defuzzing."(p. 100).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.