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Why All the Mealy Peaches?

A lot of recent visitors to this site have come in desperate need of ways to redeem the disappointing peaches that are all you can find in the supermarkets these days. Even in peach season. The best I can tell them is that you can microwave the fruit with a little sugar and lemon juice to bring back some of the flavor, but of course it’ll be cooked, not raw. For a couple of suggestions on how to do it and what to use it for, see my original post.

I decided to take this topic up again because the idea of microwave peach jam as your only option is probably not what most of you were hoping for. Me either, frankly. I want great, aromatic, incredibly juicy height-of-season peaches, and I want to be able to eat them with no further ado. Cooking them runs a distant second as far as I’m concerned (though the jam and compote weren’t bad, to tell you the truth–and I just made another batch in about 5 minutes yesterday with some much better peaches from my father-in-law’s backyard trees).

But back to the more usual reality for a moment:

I really don’t think you can get a crummy, mealy unripenable peach to be juicy and fabulous and still raw by nuking it–though I might be wrong; I haven’t tried the lower-power settings or “defrost” yet, and I haven’t tried a shorter time than 3-5 minutes. If you’re determined to try one of these, at least take the poisonous pit out first–you really don’t want to risk infusing the flesh (the peach’s or your own!) with cyanide.

But all that begs the real question–

Why all these @#$*Q#R&*@F….etc. etc…. mealy peaches at the height of summer in the first place?

OK, I know that’s not a dignified way to phrase it, but it calms me down without actually specifying swear words for a situation that clearly deserves it. (And I do have some decent enough swear words beginning with “R” and “F”, but “Q” is going to be a challenge. I’ll have to work on it–get out the Scrabble Cussword Dictionary; it’s probably going to be something in Latin.)

The reason I get so upset about this is I remember looking forward to peaches every summer as a kid–you couldn’t get them in winter (for that matter, it’s debatable that what you get in winter now actually qualifies as peaches). They were so good, so reliably good when they did arrive that my mother once assured my younger brother, who was little enough at the time to worry about the fuzzy peel, that they tasted “like heaven”. She was right. You wouldn’t hear angels or anything insipid like that when you bit into one. You’d get a stream of juice down your chin and flavor so intense you wanted to take it somewhere private to eat so you wouldn’t embarrass yourself.

But things have changed. My post on microwaving unripenable peaches came out last summer, when I bought what turned out to be mealy peaches so many times in a row I started wondering if it was just me or were the peaches really a lot worse than I remembered in childhood. Maybe it was just a one-year blip, a bad crop, some kind of exception in the history of peach-harvesting.

Turns out, probably not. Crummy peaches are back in stock this year–judging from the visitors’ log, my experience, pretty much everyone’s. Even here in California where they do grow peaches.

So blithely scouting the web for answers I come up with two possibles:

Either all the good peaches are being shipped overseas for astronomical prices and our supermarkets are buying the good-looking but deceptive dregs and we’re allowing it by not returning the unacceptable goods and demanding refunds


All the big supermarket chains are buying imported peaches from South America and the combination of long distance storage requirements and import quarantine protocols is ruining the peaches’ ability to ripen.

Of the two, I think the idea that all our domestic peach growers are sending their entire stock of acceptably good produce overseas is unlikely. We do export some fruit but the countries that were likeliest to buy from us ten years ago (Japan and Russia come to mind) have fallen on harder times and there’s more competition from sources that are geographically closer.

On the other hand, there’s a good bit of evidence to suggest the supermarket chains have been cheaping out by importing most of their summer fruit from Argentina and Chile even when it’s summer here–and winter down there. The stores have gotten used to importing all kinds of stone fruits from Chile when it’s winter here, and they may have decided to issue longer term contracts with their distributors. It’s probably cheaper than domestic fruit even after transportation and quarantine.

And that brings us to the main find:

Most people can tell you that refrigerating unripe peaches and nectarines is a bad idea–it’ll inhibit ripening later. What isn’t as obvious is that imported fresh produce has to undergo some kind of pest control by law when it arrives. Importers used to be able to spray pesticides on the produce, but with the more recent restrictions, quarantine procedures have turned to heat treatment. The fruit, picked underripe, is exposed to a jet of hot air for more than an hour.

The heat treatment severely shortens the fruit’s lifespan for ripening to about a week. After that, it’s likely to go mealy even in cold storage–sound familiar? Most of each lot of peaches from three varieties, including one that was supposed to be hardy, went mealy under those conditions. See the UC Davis research paper for details if you want to read the scientific version.

So it’s possible you can get good peaches if you buy local; it’s possible if your grocery store buys domestic, and it’s possible if you or your neighbors or friends have your own fruit trees. But under the economic realities of supermarket produce today, we may not see good peaches again at any price unless something big changes.

Maybe that “something” should be us.

If you find you’ve bought bad produce from your supermarket even when it looked good in the store, don’t just accept it. Return it right away and tell the manager, and make sure to ask for a refund, not an exchange. That way they’ll know. They may not have a lot of say at the local level, but having to pay back cash for overpriced and mealy peaches may send a little message back up the organizational chain. And even if they still import crummy peaches, at least you’ll get your money back.

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