Thursday, January 03, 2008
Epitaph For A Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm
David M. Masumoto
I have only come to love fruit recently. Fruit disgusted me when I was younger - I associated it with dirty preschoolers, associated it with slurping rottenness, with brown and repulsive cores. But China of all places changed me. When I tasted those electric green Xinjiang grapes in Urumchi, crackling with flavor, I realized what fruit was, what it could be. I bought peaches and pears and grapes and watermelon from street vendors all over China and quickly fell in love - and when I returned to California, of course, it was like returning to mecca, because we are where All the Fruit Comes From. I wandered like a drunk through our farmer's markets this summer, comparing our zillion varieties of grapes, our varietals of strawberries, our burgundy and blushing green pears (laid out in cargo boxes.) California is the fruitovores paradise. Anyone who insists on opening cans of peaches and pears while resident in this state should be slapped.
And thus the genesis for David Masumoto's book, a beautiful, sharp narration of his family farm, of the central valley that he loves (and I love), the genesis of all our fruit. His book is about the land and about family, about the delirious joy of eating a really good peach, about the spiders that return in winter to his porch. It's a book about farming, which might initially put some people off, but I've never come across a more lyrical account of what it's like to actually produce the natural, organic food that the California culinary scene places so much emphasis upon.
Masumoto explains the title of the book at its start: he is writing an epitaph for the Suncrest straing of peaches he cultivates, a strain that, despite incredibly good taste, has a unattractive color and is thus difficult to sell. He is on the brink of ripping out the trees and replacing them with a strain that is easier to sell, but holds himself back: he can't sacrifice incredible taste to the markets whims. He decides he will take the financial hit and conduct his farming organically - and the book deals primarily with the implications of that decision, with the connection to nature that he finds himself rediscovering as he grows his peaches and grapes in the old fashioned way. His ability to notice and comment upon the tiny details of his farm, the little changes that accompany the weather and the seasons, is deeply impressive - his book is a real love letter to the Central Valley, a landscape that could use a little more appreciation.
It's also a book about family and culture. Masumoto's Japanese origins play a big part in the book's narrative - he is a third generation Japanese-American farmer, a member of one of the families that have made California what it is, formed the backbone of what is to live in this state. As Masumoto notes, farming and farming culture is a new thing in California - less then 100 years old in most places - and that means that California farming and farmers are unusually diverse, unusually open to news ways of life, to innovation. He speaks lovingly of his families old traditions and holidays, weaving them delicately into his nuanced descriptions of nature, of the turning of seasons. One gets the sense that Masumoto and his wife and children are an integral part of the landscape, merging into it and not fighting against it, transferring some of this comfortable interaction into the produce they grow. It's an encouraging picture of what farming can be, far apart from the huge industrial productions that currently grow most of our food.
One thing I really enjoyed about the book is that it's not an open and shut ode to the organic way of life, either. Although Masumoto obviously derives great pleasure from (and benefit) from his organic operation, he also acknowledges that it's not a viable system for everyone. As a college educated third generation farmer, Masumoto knows he's privileged to be able to take a financial hit in the name of aesthetics and good taste - a hit that not every struggling grower or recent immigrant (Laotians in his book) has the ability to absorb. I also liked his emphasis on the pickers and laborers he employs on his farm, how they are not ignored within the narrative of his California farm - and indeed, how could they be? MIgrant workers are a group that are getting slagged upon in increasingly obscene and ridiculous ways in recent memory, and Masumoto's account of their hard work and knowledge is a wonderful vote in their favor. Without these hard working people, California's renowned produce - organic and non-organic - would be dead in the water, and Epitaph for A Peach is an excellent ode to what they do.
Epitaph for a Peach is an excellent addition to anyone's food and nature writing library (you do have one, right?) It's especially relevant if you're a California resident and want to gain a deeper appreciation for the landscape we live in and the growers and farmers that make up such a big part of what defines our state. Masumoto's beautiful and contemplative book is an excellent ode to what goes into the food we eat - and often fail to fully appreciate.