One of summer’s true indulgences, peaches originated in China and made their way to Persia, Greece, and temperate European countries including Italy, Spain, and France. They were first introduced to the southeastern United States more than 300 years ago by Spanish explorers. It is thought that English and French settlers brought peach seeds with them to the northeastern United States. At first peaches in America were mostly grown in private orchards until commercial production took off in the nineteenth century. Today peaches are commercially produced in roughly 20 states. Pennsylvania is among the top five peach producers alongside California, South Carolina, New Jersey and Georgia.
Today we can get most fruits pretty much any time of year, shipped from far-away places when not in season, but this wasn’t always the case. Many fruits, including peaches, are fragile and can spoil easily, so in the days before refrigeration, shipping and storing them was often difficult. In the nineteenth century, a popular way to enjoy fruit such as peaches year-round was to preserve them in sugary syrup. They were pared and cored or pitted, then cut in half, quartered or sliced. Peaches could also be preserved whole, which involved peeling them first, then using a skewer to push out the pit. They were boiled until tender in a preserving kettle, then carefully removed and set aside. The juice that remained was strained and combined with sugar (the general rule was a pound of sugar per pound of fruit). Sometimes flavorings such as lemon, cinnamon, or brandy (also a preservative) were added to the syrup. The fruit was put back in the kettle and boiled in the juicy syrup until thick. It was then transferred to large glass jars and the syrup poured over top. When cool, a sheet of paper that had been dipped in brandy was laid on top to form a seal between the preserves and the lid. Sometimes the underside of the paper was also coated with egg white, which helped create a tighter seal, keeping out air and insects.
Brandied peaches are just one of the many fruit preserve recipes featured in Abby Fisher’s What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, the oldest known American cookbook written by a formerly enslaved person. Abby was a remarkably resourceful woman who overcame adversity and helped keep her family together through her guidance and support. Abby Fisher’s achievements are remarkable within the culinary world, and especially significant within the sphere of African American cookery.
Abby (whose maiden name is unknown), was born in 1832 on a plantation in South Carolina. Abby grew up working in the plantation kitchen, where she became a phenomenal cook, leading to her success later in life. Abby married Alexander Fisher around 1859 and moved to Mobile, AL sometime prior to 1860. The couple had 11 children. By the end of the Civil War she and her family gained their freedom and moved from Mobile to California in 1877. Upon arriving in San Francisco, Abby capitalized on her talents as a cook, taking advantage of the changes the city was undergoing at that time. Helped by wealth from the gold rush and railroads, San Francisco was evolving from a rowdy frontier town to a place with more refinement and culture. Abby set up a catering business, which was soon in high demand among San Francisco’s leaders and upper class, including lawyers, stockbrokers, merchants and life insurance actuaries. Abby’s esteemed reputation grew quickly, and addition to the catering operation, she established a pickles and preserves business along with her husband.
Abby won diplomas for her pickles and her blackberry brandy at the Sacramento State Fair in 1879, its highest award. Then in 1880, Abby took the stage at the 15th annual San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair to accept two medals: a bronze for best pickles and sauces, and a silver for the best assortment of jellies and preserves. Her cooking abilities became so revered that many of her patrons begged her to record her “knowledge and experience of Southern cooking, pickle, and jelly making.”
So, Abby, who could not read or write, organized all the recipes in her head and dictated them. Abby proudly claimed that her 35 years of experience in the “art of cooking’ qualified her to publish her often requested recipes, assuring readers that “the book will be found a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.” The cookbook features a total of 160 recipes divided into 13 categories, including two recipes for “Brandy Peaches,” which both start off, “Always have the cling peach, free from decay.” Cling, or Clingstone peaches are those peach varieties where the flesh is attached to the pit. Although they are more difficult to prep for than freestone peaches, they are typically firmer and less juicy, which makes them preferable for canning since they hold up better.
The recipe below is adapted from Abby’s recipes. Either type of peaches is fine, as long as they are medium firm.
4 large medium-ripe peaches
1 cup water
1 cup of sugar
1 cup brandy
Fill a large pot about 3/4 full of water and place over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. Score the peaches by making an “X” on the bottom of each with a sharp paring knife, being careful not to cut too deeply. When the water is boiling, carefully place the peaches in the water, making sure they are completely submerged. Leave in for about 30 seconds, and then remove them with a slotted spoon and place in the ice water bath to stop the cooking process. When cool enough to handle, the peels should easily slip off. Peel the peaches, cut them in slices and remove the pits. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Continue to boil until the mixture is slightly syrupy — about 5 minutes. Add the peaches and return to a boil. Boil for about 1 minute and then remove the peaches with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a 1-quart canning jar or a glass or crockery dish with a lid.
Add the brandy to the saucepan with the syrup and boil for about 30 seconds. Remove from heat. Pour the hot brandy syrup over the peaches and place the container lid on top. Allow the peaches to cool to room temperature, then place in the refrigerator for a week before serving. Unopened jars can be kept in the refrigerator for 3–5 months.