Georgia is in the prime of peach season: that stretch from mid-June to mid-July where true freestones are cheerily hawked at farmers markets and roadside stands. It’s the time of biting into dripping, melty fruit over a sink and letting drops of liquid sunshine run down your chin. And most importantly, it’s a period when Georgians can rightfully brag about their local peach bounty.
“We all look for the sign for Georgia peaches,” says One Flew South culinary director chef Todd Richards. “As chefs, we utilize peaches in many ways; ours focuses on dessert, as to send you off with a bit of Georgia on your mind. There’s nothing more perfect than biting into that sun-kissed, caramelized sugar spot.”
For the rice pudding served at One Flew South in the Old Fourth Ward, Richards uses forbidden rice (sometimes referred to as black rice or purple rice,) which he says provides the dessert with a nuttier taste and pairs well with the sweetness of the whiskey-poached Georgia peaches topping the dish.
This summer, Teresa Finney of micro-bakery At Heart Panaderia is using Georgia peaches in her masa peach melba, which is inspired by another iconic Georgia dessert: peach and raspberry cobbler. The masa harina (flour) chiffon cake with a Georgia peach and raspberry jam filling comes frosted with malted vanilla bean buttercream, Finney’s answer to a scoop of melted vanilla ice cream atop warm fruit and buttery batter. She often uses fresh, seasonal fruits as main ingredients for baking cakes and pan dulce (Mexican sweet beads), including in her popular conchas.
“Using the ingredients that grow around me, or at least regionally, is just what it’s all about because that usually means I get to know the makers, growers, farmers in my community,” she says. “That is really the whole ethos of the bakery — hyper-local, Georgia-grown, usually small-batch.”
Finney is currently taking orders for the masa harina chiffon cake during this year’s peach season.
The Southern peach industry was born in Macon County in the small town of Marshallville, with the creation of the Elberta peach. “It was like a miniature gold rush,” says Will McGhee, fifth-generation farmer at Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Georgia.
Georgia farmers weren’t just great at growing peaches — they also excelled at getting peaches to market. Samuel and Lewis Rumph created a rail system with a car that suppliers could ice all the way up to the northeast to keep peaches cool. This combination of product and shipping technology cemented the association between Georgia and peaches.
But Georgia’s reputation as “the Peach State” really comes from quality rather than overall quantity. In 2021, for example, Georgia yielded 35,300 tons of peaches; South Carolina yielded 72,630 tons in its most successful harvest since 2011; California harvested more than 130,000 tons of peaches.
There are a few variables that put Georgia’s peaches at the pinnacle. First, southern and western farmers grow different types of peaches: melters and non-melters. You can identify a melter right in your hand; give it a light squeeze, and it will soften against the pressure. West Coast peaches are non-melters. The fruit accrues a certain amount of sugar and can then sit on a shelf for an extended period of time.
“They’re amazing in longevity,” McGhee says. “The issue is they just don’t melt properly, they don’t give you the proper juice, they aren’t that ‘Oh my gosh, I wanna high-five somebody they’re so good.’”
Unlike other tight-skinned stone fruits and drupes like nectarines, plums, and grapes, peaches respire quickly on account of the fuzzy exterior and losing moisture at a higher rate of return. This makes peaches far from optimal for refrigerator and cooler storage. “You just don’t have two weeks’ worth of [shelf] life on them,” McGhee says.
There’s no need to rely on non-melting peaches in the Southeast, he adds, where the fruit can travel from the tree to the customer within a few days, whether those peaches are sold at a roadside stand or local farmers market or shipped up the East Coast or to the Midwest.
What’s more, Georgia contains the ideal breeding grounds for growing peaches. The state’s distinctive red clay, especially the clay soil found along the Fort Valley Plateau in Middle Georgia, is nutrient-dense and retains moisture incredibly well — a huge asset in a state that’s also prone to droughts. And the final factor? Georgia’s intense heat and humidity. What’s hell for Georgians is optimal for growing peaches and allows the fruit to constantly produce sugar. Peaches growing in regions that continually cool down overnight pause and stop developing sugar until the heat goes back up again.
So, Georgia doesn’t produce the majority of America’s peaches. So what? If the state did continuously rear peaches with high pack out and a longer shelf life, it would entirely be at the expense of the flavor that makes Georgia peaches distinct and just so good.
“You look at all the monikers of other states and I’ll take ‘the Peach State’ any day of the week,” McGhee says. “It’s a romantic, sweet, succulent fruit. Could you imagine a better thing to be known for?”
Sarra Sedghi is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Alabama. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a MFA in narrative nonfiction in 2017. Her work has appeared in Eater, Atlas Obscura, MyRecipes, Polygon, Taste of Home, Tasting Table, and Thrillist.