A scene from the nostalgia file, circa 1950: With a dog-eared copy of the Ball Blue Book flat on the kitchen counter, the perfect little housewife rushes madly, flushed, through hours of soaking and peeling and filling jars with perfectly ripe, amber-colored peaches, following the book's quaint directions through "water baths" and "simple syrups."
In our dreams. Even if we are lucky enough to happen onto tree-ripened peaches (distressingly rare these days), few of us have the time or inclination to haul out the canning apparatus and pack them in Ball jars for future gratification. Out of season, then, there are few choices: mushy, tasteless frozen slices or commercially canned peaches, firm enough to stop a speeding bullet. Chasing a slippery peach halfway around a plate, trying in vain to catch it with a spoon, we long for the peaches our grandmothers (or those grandmothers in our dreams) put up.
Thank goodness for Shawnee Canning Company in Cross Junction, Virginia. "Canned the way Grandma did" is the firm's motto, and it is no empty boast. This family-owned and -run cannery still peels peaches by hand, using steam instead of the lye solution common to most commercial canneries. The Whitacre family even grows its own peaches, harvesting Red Haven, Glow Haven, and Loring varieties.
George and DeMaris Whitacre have grown peaches and apples in Frederick County near the West Virginia border since the 1930s. They became processors in 1966 as a survival tactic, when the owners of the sole remaining cannery in the area wanted to retire. The Whitacres feared for their orchard's future if there were no longer a nearby outlet for their harvests. So they bought the cannery and persuaded their son William Lee and daughter-in-law Joan, both schoolteachers, to become partners, thus promising continuity.
The company's extraordinary peaches, freestones, are softer and more flavorful than the more commonly canned clings (so-called because the fruit clings to the pit). Shawnee offers sweetened or unsweetened peaches, both first-rate. We prefer the sweetened variety. The sugar helps retain that signature canned-peach color, and gives the fruit the full, pleasing flavor we remember from childhood. We find the heavy syrup itself a treat, just sipped with a spoon or as a dunking bath for gingersnap cookies.
Chilled peaches, topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon or cloves or infused with a splash of vanilla extract, are simple perfection. Eating them, you remember how satisfying canned peaches can be.