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By Dave DeWitt
The peach appears to have originated in China, where it achieved cult-like status because it was symbol of immortality among poets, sculptors, and painters. This is despite the fact that the peach tree has a short lifespan and most orchards must be replaced after a decade of production. It was Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico and later its agricultural pioneer, who introduced peaches into Mexico as early as 1530. From there, peaches followed the Spanish settlers to St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 and to Santa Fe around 1600. The Creek and Seminole inhabitants of Florida adopted the peaches and they were passed from tribe to tribe and spread throughout North America faster than the white settlers. At the same time, the cultivated trees escaped into the landscape and William Penn observed wild, Indian peaches as far north as Philadelphia in 1683. By the mid-1700s, peaches were so plentiful in the United States that botanists thought of them as native fruits.
Peaches were beloved by southerners. Specific peach varieties were rarely mentioned in eighteenth-century Virginia literature, and George Washington only noted two varieties for his Mount Vernon orchard. But Thomas Jefferson cultivated more than thirty-eight in his South Orchard alone. The peach was premier fruit at Monticello, and undoubtedly Jefferson's favorite fruit; he wrote “We abound in the luxury of peaches.”
At Monticello the cooks made mobby, which was peach juice that was later distilled into brandy. Jefferson recorded that “20 bushes of peaches will make 75 galls. of mobby.” Of course, fresh peaches were used in desserts like a topping for ice cream and were made into preserves. “Peach chips” were sliced from peeled peaches, boiled, sugared, and sun-dried. In 1794, Jefferson had his slaves plant 900 peach trees, which also made excellent firewood from the dead wood pruned each winter. “I am endeavoring to make a collection of the choicest kind of peaches for Monticello,” he wrote to a friend in 1807.
Probably the most famous peach dish is Peach Melba, a classic dessert invented in 1892 by the French chef Auguste Escoffier at the Savoy Hotel in London to honor the Australian soprano, Nellie Melba. It combines two popular summer fruits: peaches and raspberry sauce accompanying vanilla ice cream. In 1892, Nellie was performing in Wagner's opera Lohengrin at Covent Garden. The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party to celebrate her triumph, and for the occasion Escoffier created a new dessert, peaches resting rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream and which were topped with spun sugar. In 1900, Escoffier created a new version of the dessert for the opening of the Carlton Hotel, where he was the new head chef. Instead of spun sugar, he topped the peaches with raspberry purée, and that's the classic Peach Melba that lives on today.