book club: “how to pick a peach” by russ parsons

ht pick a peachPop quiz: a) What fruits and vegetables should you NEVER refrigerate?  b) Which ones should you wash before refrigerating?  c) What is the difference between climacteric and non-climacteric fruits?*  You’ll find the answers to these questions and much more in Russ Parsons’ book How to Pick a Peach.  A follow-up to his book How to Read a French Fry, which explored questions of “kitchen science”, How to Pick a Peach sets out to educate the produce consumer on how to choose, store and prepare produce, while also giving great background information on how we arrived at the selection we have today in our grocery stores and farmers’ markets.  The book is organized by seasons, and each chapter covers a particular item or family of items (for example, apples get their own chapter; broccoli & cauliflower are grouped together).  The bulk of the chapters discuss the history of that food, how it came to be developed, farmed, distributed, etc.  Each chapter ends with short segments labeled How to Choose, How to Store, How to Prepare, and One Simple Dish.  Three to four recipes are given for each chapter that highlight that chapter’s fruit or vegetable.  The chapters are interspersed with article-length segments such as “When it’s OK to buy Unripe Fruit”.

I thought this book would be a good choice as we head into that time of year when the farmers’ markets start to get into full swing.  Although I have a pretty good idea of what is in season when, this book was definitely a great refresher course.  Not only that, but I learned some things that surprised me and will certainly make me change my habits, especially in regards to storing food.  I also very much enjoyed reading the histories of the different paths that our produce and farming practices have taken over the years.  Some of it is a bit depressing, such as reading about how many items are bred purely with shipping and storage concerns in mind, but overall the book had a positive tone, highlighting many instances where flavor is winning out over durability or aesthetics.  The subtitle of the book is “The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table”, and Parsons does focus on informing us about what varieties of certain fruits or veggies are especially known for good flavor. His instructions on selecting and storing produce are also geared not only towards avoiding spoilage, but optimizing flavor as well.  I think what I will ultimately take from this book is a positive sense that we are slowly but surely heading back towards the right direction, as well as some crib notes to keep in my wallet until I have the whole climacteric/ non-climacteric thing memorized!  (In fact, the book could have been greatly improved by including a tear-out pocket guide… perhaps an idea for future editions?)

Recipes: The recipes Parsons provides are nothing groundbreaking, but it’s nice to get a few ideas at the end of a chapter, and most of the recipes are easy and “familiar” enough that you could knock them out without a lot of fuss or advance planning.  I made two recipes from the book, a grilled cheese with onions and an asparagus risotto, which you can read about here.

*a) Never refrigerate potatoes, onions or tomatoes; b) You shouldn’t wash anything before refrigerating; the moisture causes breakdown and more rapid spoilage to occur; c) climacteric fruits can ripen after being picked, while non-climacteric fruits need to be picked at their ripest and will not improve after picking.

Discussion questions: (please feel free to answer one, a few, or all!)

  1. Why do you think Parsons selected a peach as his title fruit, rather than a pear, plum, or some vegetable?
  2. Generations ago, a book like this probably would not have been necessary.  The smaller amount of items available would have meant that the average person would not have needed the breadth of knowledge that we do when we go to the supermarket. We now have a disconnect from many items because they are not local and thus less familiar, and therefore we find ourselves in a position of having to “re-educate” ourselves as consumers.  Is the greater variety worth the trade-off?  How much time and effort are you willing to spend to ensure that you are selecting the best possible produce?
  3. One of the topics discussed in the book is the supply chain and how it affects what varieties are propagated.  How important is it to you to have a wider variety of items, some shipped from across the country or imported, versus having better quality items that can be found locally?
  4. It stands to reason that if consumers stopped buying flavorless peaches, tomatoes, etc, growers would be forced to adapt.  Why and how did people become disinterested about the flavor of their food?  How much blame, if any, should be placed on the average consumer (or the farmers) for the quality of produce found in our grocery stores today?
  5. What do you think the future holds for the flavor of fruits and vegetables, the way the supply chain functions, and for the overall quality of our food?

12 responses to “book club: “how to pick a peach” by russ parsons

  1. [response to question 1]

    Better opportunities for cover art!

    [response to question 2]

    I do like getting organges, lemons and avocadoes in Michigan. I spend a lot of time and effort trying to buy locally, but sometimes, you just can’t.

    [response to question 3]

    In Michigan, it’s hard to find anything truly local in the winter months.

    [response to question 4]

    I think sometimes, non local things are sometimes very flavorful – such as Meyer lemons, mangoes, oranges. I try to buy local because I want to support the local economy, but I don’t think it’s fair to say non local things aren’t flavorful all the time.

    [response to question 5]

    I’m hoping that eating locally becomes a viable option for the poor.

    • MK-
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I completely agree with your answer to #5. Isn’t it ironic (and sad) that for many of our foods, buying the item that has been shipped from far away is actually cheaper than buying the locally grown product? I suppose it all depends which large agribusinesses are operating in what areas, and that determines what is going to be cheapest.
      As for #4, I don’t think anyone is saying that local always equals flavorful and non-local equals inferior flavor. At least, that’s not how I read it. The question is pertaining to the choices we make as consumers and the role that plays in supply and demand. For example, if people are buying peaches that have little flavor (but can be shipped more easily), farmers will continue to supply those, and will have no incentive to produce a better quality product. So, given that, to what degree is it the consumer’s “fault” if we don’t have great quality in certain items?

  2. [a) Never refrigerate potatoes, onions or tomatoes; b) You shouldn’t wash anything before refrigerating; the moisture causes breakdown and more rapid spoilage to occur; c) climacteric fruits can ripen after being picked, while non-climacteric fruits need to be picked at their ripest and will not improve after picking.]

    Wow – I knew about b but not a (well I knew tomatoes) or c.

    I’m wishing I had time to have joined in for this month’s book – I’m eager to see what next months book will be!

  3. It’s interesting, Noelle – I covered a book that is also a “back to basics” cookbook in my blog today. The NY Times just had a summer cookbook review on Sunday, and they cited the trend of returning to the fundamentals. You’re right – a book like this wouldn’t have been necessary, but I think it’s wonderful that books like this (and the one I reviewed today) are reappearing. It seems a much more rational approach to food than something made with exotic ingredients that ends up looking like a little pink square.

    • I agree- I love incorporating exotic ingredients from time to time, of course, but I do also feel like I don’t have an iron-clad grasp of all “the basics”. A lot of the stuff in this book is stuff that people in previous generations just would have known by absorbing it from parents, but somewhere along the line (most likely in the ’50s & ’60s, when agribusiness was pushing “convenience” over all else) we lost our general knowledge of these things. Growing up, I knew that tomatoes and corn were summer items (because my grandfather had a farm and that’s when we’d get them), but I never really thought about the seasonality of any other fruit or vegetable because they were always just there in the store. When things started becoming more widely available I’m sure it was seen as a great improvement at the time, to be able to get more of a selection throughout the year, and no one really questioned any negative consequence it might have.

  4. This is great! I went to the library today to see if they had a book club and I wasn’t interested in the books they were going to discuss. While I was walking around, I wondered if there was a food related book club somewhere and you posted this! 🙂

    Would love to participate for the next book.

    I had to do some research before doing a squash demo last year and I found some interesting facts regarding the growing and history of summer and winter squash. It was actually really interesting.

  5. 1st – Noelle thanks for getting me to start reading this book! I might have passed over it with a smug “I already know how to…” had it not been for your book club.

    Q1 – to me there’s nothing so evocative of a perfect summer fruit than a perfectly ripe drippy juicy fuzzy peachy peach. I think Parsons put it on the cover because of the extreme differences between perfectly wonderful, local, heritage variety, peak summer peaches and the off-season, imported, hard round balls found in the grocery stores all winter. The sensual combo of flavor, SMELL and feel of ripe peaches is probably one of those experiences lost to many with the current food system.

    Re the local=more flavor discussion – TRY this at home and you will be amazed – do the side-by-side taste test of something from your garden or purchased at a farmers market or stand and something purchased the same day from a big chain store. You already know it’s true for tomatoes! With blueberries, peaches, strawberries….you don’t even have to taste them – the delicious smell alone will prove it to you. Compare those bags of lettuce w/ some greens from Tantre Farm. Yes, it’s not all about local vs shipped, but the ability of local farmers to grow heirloom and open pollinated varietals means it is food grown to be food not to be sturdy shipping commodity.

    • Thanks Rena! I know what you mean about feeling like you may already know a lot of this information… for me, some of it was “review”, but there was definitely a lot in there that I either didn’t know or needed reminding about.

      Re: Question 1, I agree, I thought he chose a peach because it is so representative about what has “gone wrong” in our quest to have more variety available all the time. (I wanted to give someone else the chance to say it first though, so I’m glad you did!)

  6. [response to question 1]

    I think he chose peaches because they grow all over the United States. Their so much fun to eat. Everyone has a story about the best one they ever had. Whether you go to a grocery store or a farmers market shoppers are standing around smelling and admiring their color. If the grower has samples there is always a crowd. When people have such positive experiences it’s no wonder he chose it.

    [response to question 2]

    I can’t imagine a more important reason for learning about food than feeding my family. We are so lucky that we can enjoy fruits and vegetables from so many climates. We are much healthier for it. However in order to ship some of these fruits and vegetables they are picked too soon for full flavor, the produce is bred for longevity and aesthetics instead on taste. Eating seasonally and local still makes a lot of sense. I also have a large garden for foods that I like that are not available.

    [response to question 3]

    I love to cook and having a wide variety of produce is very important to me. I can try all kinds of cuisines, not just from the all over the US, but internationally too. In this way I can educate my family and give them a better understanding of the world.

    [response to question 4]

    Well basically we got lazy. For convenience sake we gave up flavor. These corporate farms are just too impersonal for me. In times past we shopped at local farmers markets because there were no super grocery stores. We forgot how to choose delicious food. We no longer knew who we were getting it from. The government said it was safe so we ate it. I’m so very glad that things are going back the other way. The more we ask for organic tasty food the more it will be grown.

    [response to question 5]

    I am not sure if we can get much faster delivery on our produce, we already truck and fly much of it from all over the world. Certainly we can be more efficient getting it from place to place. I am delighted that more and more folks are aware of farmers markets and the industry will grow.

    I did prepare one of the recipes in the book. Asparagus and Shrimp Risotto. It was easy to prepare and tasty. The broth was very lightly flavored with the aromatic ingredients. I’m not sure I wouldn’t use a seafood base with it for a little more flavor. I recommend giving it a try I know I will again.

    Thank you for hosting this book review. I really enjoyed reading it and will use it as a reference in the future. I will post this on my blog along with pictures of the risotto.

    • Leona, thanks so much for participating, your answers are all very thoughtful. I especially agree with your response to #4. I think that maybe, the advent of the 2-income household is largely to blame for our use of convenience foods, perhaps more so than sheer laziness. (Don’t get me started… I for one think that if we were less greedy and consumed less “stuff”, we could easily get by on a one income per family scenario like we did in the past. And studies show that people had a higher standard of living back then!)

      It’s funny, I made the same recipe, the risotto. I guess it’s not that much of a coincidence, since it’s about the only thing in the book that was at the local Farmers’ Market. 🙂 I’m going to post about it soon and we can compare notes!

  7. We are a one income family and live simply but well. Yes it takes a little more effort on my part, but I would not trade the time I have with my family for anything. 🙂

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