Many scholars dispute the existence of peaches in America before colonization. There are many accounts of wild peaches in “Indian Orchards” prior to the 1560s, and some assert the French and Spanish introduced them to North America.
For the record, I believe they also grew wild in Indian country. Either way, I’m glad they’re here now.
Peaches have evolved into hundreds of varieties but are classified in two general categories, freestone and clingstone. Freestone are the preferred peaches for eating by hand, as their skin does not stick to the pit. Clingstones are generally softer, juicier and sweeter, and commonly used for canning and preserving—especially for commercially canned peaches. All peaches are ripe for picking in May to October, and in winter months they are imported from the Southern hemisphere.
Produce markets tend to sell peaches just before their prime. Before they ripen, peaches are often uncharacteristically hard and crunchy. To get them juicy and bursting with flavor, hasten the process at home by placing the fruit in a paper bag with a few perforations. This allows the ethylene gas that fruit generates naturally to become concentrated and speed up the ripening process.
A sad and shameful bit of history took place in 1864 when Kit Carson (no relation) commenced a “scorched earth” maneuver to remove the Navajo (Dine’) from their homeland under orders from General James H. Carleton. Navajo fields and homes were burned, livestock stolen and killed. One thousand peach trees were burned down. I have read many accounts with varying numbers of peach trees destroyed, up to about 4,000. The theory was to break their spirit and force a truce. That led to “The Long Walk” to the Bosque Redondo reservation on which 350 died and 2,000 escaped out of the 9,000 who embarked on the trip.
I’m sure it was impossible to shatter the spirit of these proud people. Natives are a resilient people.
After four years, the Navajo returned to their lands of today. It is interesting to note that in the 1890s, most of the canyon’s peaches had been restored as valuable trade items. Then bad economic times hit and the orchards suffered again. In 1986, a teacher, Bill Johnson, began replanting the fruit trees with help from a nonprofit group called Trees for Mother Earth. There were 5,000 trees planted in the canyon and another 15,000 additional trees in other areas around the reservation.
A woman, Wanda Clark, who lives in the Chinle area and was a volunteer in Johnson’s group, formed a sister organization called “Dine’ Trees of Life”.
Now, apparently, the trees are threatened once again—this time by drought, erosion and invasive vegetation. There is great hope that the peach trees will thrive again and remain as icons of the spirit of the Navajo/Dine’.
12 ripe peaches, peeled and chopped
4 firm apples, peeled and chopped
1 large Vidalia onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
2 lemons, juice and peel grated
Add the above ingredients to the syrup below and boil for at least 10-15 minutes.
3 cups apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon (or less) cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons mustard seed
2 cups dark brown sugar
Simmer all for 30 minutes, then add: 1 teaspoon ground cloves and 1 teaspoon ground ginger. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer 5 minutes more. When the chutney reaches your desired consistency, place in jars or bottles and seal.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticu