Peach leather is the sort of thing that few modern city-dwellers in their right minds would make. Why pay $2-$4 a pound for high-summer peaches only to turn their luscious flesh into shriveled strips?
Surely, the perfectly ripe peach deserves a different fate. She should blossom, warm and fragrant, from beneath delicate latticed pie pastry or get a bit rough and tumbled in a bowl of crumbly, buttery cobbler or simply drip her juices down a child’s chin. To mash and desiccate her just seems cruel! But this is what they did in 1867 when Annabella P. Hill of LaGrange, Georgia, set forth the definitive recipe for Peach Leather in Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, “the major Southern cookbook published in the aftermath of the Civil War,” as Molly O’Neill explains (emphasis mine). And so this is what I did on a recent dog-day Saturday afternoon.
Mrs. Hill, born in 1810, knew turbulent times. It’s not for nothing that today’s Future Christian Housewives of America have looked to her for inspiration and the courage to stick to their convictions in a war-torn world ruled by dubious politicians and corrupt morals. The gals at FCH quote Mrs. Hill at length; I offer an abridged kernel:
“Men grow sated of music, are often too wearied for conversation, however intellectual; but they can always appreciate a well-swept hearth and smiling comfort. A woman may love her husband, may sacrifice fortune, friends, family and country for him… but a melancholy fate awaits her if she fails to make his home comfortable, and his heart will inevitably forsake her. Better submit to household duties, even should there be no predilection for them, than doom herself to a loveless home...”
So this is why good housewives of the Old South made peach leather! Men cannot live by the fresh and bountiful alone; men desire constance and something to chew on in the winter months (presumably something other than a deep thought from the little woman). In the generation that survived the Civil War, young, able-bodied men had their pick of brides. If you're lucky enough to land one, best not lose him because you failed to stock your larder.
Like pickled shrimp (which is, according to O’Neill, the other quintessential Southern dish of its day), peach leather is a food for ants who save rather than grasshoppers who gorge. But without my own orchard, there was little chance of me making enough leather to last a week. And even that would cost a small fortune in Union greenbacks. Thankfully I had the good, housewifely sense to secure just-overripe peaches at a deep discount from a vendor at the Union Square Farmers’ Market. En route to my boyfriend's familial home in Westchester (the key thing was that it has a yard - I didn't want to do the leather-drying on my fire escape), 3.5 pounds of mushy peaches seeped through the nylon of my trusty reusable Chico bag, leaving a trail of nectar on the 4 train and through the great hall of Grand Central.
The upside was that once I got into the kitchen, I had little mashing to do. A quick rinse, a few pulses and turns of a potato masher, and then, in cup-size batches, I pressed the fragrant, goldenrod-yellow goop through a sieve. A dozen peaches produced about 6 cups of thick juice (terrific mixed with seltzer or spooned over ice cream) and 6 cups of puree, flecks of soft skin left in.
Mrs. Hill instructs her young housewives-in-training to “butter well panes of glass, and spread the paste smoothly upon them,” then put the panes out to dry, turning once. Old recipes are generally short on specifics like measurements, temperatures, and time (details!). Could I expect my paste to become leather in a day, or would this be a weekend operation? I had no way of knowing.
What’s more, I seem to have misplaced my spare panes of glass. Mrs. Hill concedes that buttered strips of cloth spread upon “well-seasoned boards” are an adequate substitute. I decided to go with wax paper, butter spray, and a 14-inch pizza pan (making do with what was on hand).
At about 1 pm, the pan was laid out in the sun to start drying (I realize that Mrs. Hill would have woken with the rooster’s crow and had her peach-panes out just as the sun peaked over the old oak trees hung with Spanish moss). Six hours of direct sunlight on a 90-degree day got me less than half way to dry. After grilling dinner, I put the pan in the still-warm grill and left it there as we went to a movie. It was fairly moist when we got home, so I put it out to catch the first rays of sunrise. The next morning, I realized I’d failed to factor in the morning dew. I’d lost some ground: moisture had seeped back into the puree through the wax paper. I didn’t have all day to leave it out again and so reluctantly put it in a 200-degree oven for about 45 minutes (thereby forfeiting at least one-third of the leather's novelty: its sole reliance on the power of the sun).
After letting it cool completely, I sliced the leather into one and a half-inch wide strips and carefully peeled them back. As you can see in the photo, the strips came out decidedly ragged-edged (leaving the impression of being a prop from a horror film, as Marc unhelpfully pointed out). I should have used real butter and plenty of it, as Mrs. Hill advises. Also, I let the edges of the puree get too thin, while the center was thick and didn’t dry completely (although this part – roughly the consistency of jam – is my favorite).
Overall the leather is tasty and undeniably peach-y, sure, but in a city where Stretch Island Fruit Leather is sold at every bodega’s counter for about 50 cents a pop – what are you gaining by all the effort? I produced about 5 ounces of leather – the equivalent of ten Stretch Island single servings – and a day later, I’ve got about two-thirds left.
The real test of the homemade leather's magic would be to put away the small amount I have (“roll up and keep in boxes,” as Mrs. Hill recommends) and reserve for dark winter days, when my man is feeling glum, cooped up, and tired of my voice (these days, we call that seasonal affective disorder). Each chewy bite would evoke summer sunshine and possibly the sweetness of young love, and he’d remember why he married me, a woman of a "higher order of mind" who knows that her "feminine, domestic duties" are her "first duties."
Um, I'll leave that to the future housewives. Would anyone like a strip?
Stay posted: in the next few days I'll add my versions of the recipes I've attempted -- for those of you who want to follow along at home. And also my take on a very 90s (that is, 1990s) recipe for mustard/ginger-glazed tuna burgers, which was what I cooked on the grill mentioned above. Other recipes on my to-try list for August? Oysters Rockefeller (1955), tomato catsup (1871), Alice B. Toklas' iced souffle (1954), George Washington Carver's peanut puree (1916), and Perfection Salad (1905)--sparkling gelatin is the non-negotiable ingredient, if I can just get my hands on it! Any ideas?