Peaches and Cobblers: a Sweet History

I’ve been a bit overwhelmed lately, finishing my master’s thesis in archaeology, but a visit to the local farmers market yesterday reminded me of what I had been missing. The soft, sunset colored, fuzzy southern Illinois peaches they had brought me back to the basics of food, and pulled my attention away from the cerebral study of historical foodways. Biting into a ripe, juicy peach, with its velvety soft skin and its intense sticky sweet flavor is one of the most visceral, and sensual food experiences.
peach-cobbler-copy

Peaches were originally cultivated in China, and archaeological evidence suggests they were cultivated as far back as the Neolithic era.

According to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, although its botanical name, Prunus persica, suggests the peach is native to Persia, it was in fact the Persians who brought the peach from China to Europe along the ancient Silk Road.

According to Foods & Nutrition Encyclopedia, “Alexander the Great introduced the fruit into Europe after he conquered the Persians.”

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs also mentions that the Romans called peaches “persicum malum, meaning Persian apple.  In Middle English, it melded into peche, much closer to what we call it today.”

According to the History of Food, a sixth century Italian poet, Venantius Fortunatus, wrote “first I was given those sweet fruits the common people call peaches; they never tired of serving them to me, and I never tired of eating them; soon my stomach was distended like that of a woman giving birth.”  In modern vernacular, that condition would be described as a food baby.

Inspiration for what to do with my peachy treasure came from NPR’s recent Pie Week special series.  During one of the interviews, Deborah Duchon, a nutritional anthropologist, mentioned that cobblers were uniquely American.  She said in the interview, “There are variations on pies that are very American, like the Apple Betty and cobblers … Those are all variations on pies that were developed by pioneers who didn’t have the equipment that they needed – the right kind of pan, the right kind of oven. So those are all American-style variations.”

Cobblers are defined as “an American deep-dish fruit dessert or pie with a thick crust (usually a biscuit crust) and a fruit filling (such as peaches, apples, berries). Some versions are enclosed in the crust, while others have a drop-biscuit or crumb topping.”

According to cookbook author Nancy Baggett “Despite the old saying, ‘more American than apple pie,’ Americans can’t really claim credit for pie; English settlers brought recipes for it with them. However, we can take full credit for the old-fashioned fruit dessert called cobbler. It was created here in the late 18th or early 19th century, around the time that baking soda became available and cooks began using it to puff up their doughs. One of the first mentions of “cobler” was in Mrs. Lettice Bryan’s 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife.  In a recipe called Peach Pot Pie, she commented: ‘Peach pot pie, or cobler as it is often termed, should be made of clingstone peaches, that are very ripe, and then pared and sliced from the stones.’ At the end of the recipe, she added: ‘Eat it warm or cold. Although it is not a fashionable pie for company, it is very excellent for family use… While cobbler is indeed a fine dish for families, all the company I’ve served it to has also been thrilled with this succulent, richly flavored homespun treat!'”

As for the source of the name cobbler, Rob Gusche notes “The earliest meaning of the word “cobbler” refers to one who makes (or “cobbles”) shoes. Sometime later, “to cobble” came to mean “to put together clumsily or roughly” (American Heritage Dictionary). This second meaning is most likely the origin of the name of fruit-based dessert known as “cobbler,” in which the ingredients are thrown together with little of the precision required to make a classic fruit pie.”  Food historian Lynne Olver also suggests that the name cobbler could be attributed to the lumpy cobblestone appearance of the freshly baked confection.

The recipe I used was a variation of the Easy Peach Cobbler but it might as well be called Magical Peach Cobbler, because the pastry batter for the crust is poured into the bottom of the pan, but while baking, the dough rises up to the top and makes a golden crust with a sugar crisp crunch.

Makes 4 generous servings.

Ingredients:

1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar, divided in half
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teapsoon salt
1/2 cup milk
4 cups fresh peach slices
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
Ground cinnamon

Preparation:

Melt butter in a baking dish.

Combine flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, and salt; add milk, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Pour batter over butter (do not stir).

Bring remaining 1/2 cup sugar, peach slices, and lemon juice to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly; pour over batter (do not stir). Sprinkle with cinnamon, if desired.

Bake at 375° for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. Serve cobbler warm or cool.

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