May 22, 2010
The most surprising part of Tour #3 offered by the ninth annual Cooking for Solutions event (Monterey Bay Aquarium) was that we didn’t get on a bus like the other tours. The group of us, about 20, walked to the patio of the new Intercontinental Hotel next door. There we met with David Mas Masumoto, the famous Fresno writer and peach farmer. He is the author of several books, including Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil (1998), Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on my Family Farm (1995), and most recently Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land (2009). And he was a most gracious and friendly host. Each of us was welcomed by him personally, and my daughter and I were able to have his full attention as we waited in the lobby of the Intercontinental: The Clement Monterey for the event to begin. We told him about our desire to adopt a peach tree this year, and how a family wedding on July 31 interfered. “The peaches will be about two weeks late this year, probably the first and second weekends in August,” he told us.
This is a man with a passion for peaches and farming and writing. He read to us first from Epitaph for a Peach about the heirloom peaches he continues to grow despite the difficulty selling it.
He read from the opening to Epitaph: “Sun Crest is one of the last remaining truly juicy peaches. When you wash that treasure under a stream of cooling water, your fingertips instinctively search for the gushy side of the fruit. Your mouth waters in anticipation. You lean over the sink to make sure you don’t drip on yourself. They you sink your teeth into the flesh, and the juices trickles down your cheeks and dangles on your chin. This is a real bite, a primal act, a magical sensory celebration announcing that summer has arrived. ”
I think I peaked with that paragraph,” he joked.
He led the event by reading from several of his books, and stories of the farm. His decision to farm organically, he says, brought life back into the farm. He read: “armies of weeds, I now saw as natural grasses.” Changing his methods for pest control using pheromone strips–three different strips for each tree–is called “mating disruption” or the “confusion method.” The insects come looking for a mate that isn’t there. Not spraying the peaches is an advantage in other ways too. He emphasized that the farm workers benefit from not using toxic chemicals. It’s healthier for everyone, works and consumers.
Masumoto is concerned not only with marketing his peaches, but also with the farm workers and social justice. His wife, Marcy, talked about the farm workers and their hands at work; peaches must be judged for ripeness and picked by hand. When the peaches are walnut sized 2/3 of the fruit must be removed from the trees by hand. And then when the Sun Crest peaches are ripe, each one must be picked by hand with great care to avoid bruising. Many hands touch these peaches, with care. For the dried Sun Crest peaches, which we tasted as part of our luncheon, each peach was sliced by hand and dried twenty-four hours on screens in the dry heat of Fresno. Marcy emphasized that when we eat a peach, we should celebrate the many people who worked to bring this peach to us.
Masumoto has a family farm, passed down to him from his father, who passed away in April, six weeks before this event. His daughter, Nikiko is now 22, and she wants to keep the farm going. Also, his son Korio 19, and Marcy, his wife are very involved in the farm. Loss of parents means a loss of our buffer to mortality. Mas realizes that he is the last farmer when his father passes. In Wisdom of the Last Farmer, he writes about his father’s stroke and bringing him back to farming as part of the recovery.
These stories of farming and the seasons of peaches added meaning to the food we were served. They gave the lunch a different flavor. “When a farmer holds up a peach and looks at it what does he see?” Masumoto asked us. “I see summer,” he said, “and the poetry of farming.” The value of seeing the people who work to bring us the peaches and the trees that bear the fruit altered our experience of eating. We were able to understand the farm and thus to understand the fruit and to savor the sweetness more fully. Yes, stories make the fruit taste sweeter.
Three courses were served at our luncheon, each preceded by a cooking demonstration by a different chef. Unifying the luncheon were Masumoto’s peaches: Ricotta gnocchi with chardonnay peach sauce, mushu pork with peach hoisin sauce, and a peach cake with Italian butter cream.
When I told Mas I taught English at Santa Monica College, he said he recently gave a reading at Santa Monica High School. He also offered writing exercises he has used when working with students. The first involves listening in the garden, a sensory walk to record what we hear. He has also asked students for suggestions of music to listen to as he works on the farm, weeding, pruning, and driving the tractor. Lately, he said, he’s having fun working to country music. Time lapse animation of plants growing has also been a successful project, which students have posted on Youtube.
The following essay is an excellent review of Epitaph for a Peach, written by Andrew Mariani: http://www.crfg.org/pubs/bkrev/EpitaphPeach.html
The July 2010 Martha Stewart Living magazine, has a lengthy article on Masumoto and his farm. The article is titled Peach’s Progress: Masumoto’s Orchard. http://www.marthastewart.com/article/peaches-progress-masumotos-orchard#ixzz0wbSUwxWC