After recently being told about a stand of peach trees in a remote corner of Queens, I was invited to visit-under the conditions that I not disclose the neighborhood in question or the identity of my source. I was informed that I would have to drive: many parts of New York City are not accessible by public transportation, and this was one of them. As for directions, you may or may not be relieved to learn that Google Maps was not up to the task, and, had I followed its instructions, I would have been led into (and under) a reed-filled swamp on the southwestern shores of Brooklyn. Undeterred by this failure of the Internet, I followed a handwritten set of directions that I received in the mail.
In a delirium of heat and fatigue (one that will be familiar to anyone who has endured any portion of this eternal summer), I left Washington Heights and eventually crossed seven bridges, five railroad trestles, six islands (including three apparently never before seen on any map of New York City, and which were almost as big as Manhattan, albeit populated only by forests of 200-foot virgin oaks, an array of songbirds and a few stray cats), and finally passed through a serpentine series of one-way streets lined with increasingly ornate but decrepit mansions.
I stopped the car, rolled down the window, and (along with the strains of an unseen player piano) detected a sweet aroma that called to mind the peach pies my grandfather used to bake when I was a child. (It was his signature dish.) I parked and tried to orient myself according to the street numbers, which turned out to be an exercise in futility. As was later explained to me, numerical addresses in Queens are assigned to houses at random, and often include dashes, symbols and decimal points that are indecipherable except to those who have studied the system for years, if not decades.
I spotted a peach tree. Gnarled, broken-limbed, and situated in a sloping lawn of dry, yellowed grass, the tree nevertheless dripped with ripening fruit. The peaches were not the grotesquely huge specimens-like big baby heads-that you find in gourmet delis and supermarkets but were the size of a large apricot. I could not resist reaching up to touch one, and without any resistance it fell into my palm. My host appeared as if by magic and without any introduction told me I should eat the fruit. I bit into it, and was amazed not only by the sweet taste but also the firm consistency of the flesh. (Is there anything worse than a mealy peach?)
My host subsequently took me on a tour, and as we walked along the streets and then into the alleys behind the streets, the surrounding yards of each subsequent house was adorned with more and more peach trees, from which an infinite number of peaches hung (and sparkled) like stars on a clear summer night. (Not that I would know about that lately.) My head swam with the promise of fresh peaches, peach cobbler, smoked peaches, grilled peaches, fresh peach ice cream, peach liqueur, peachy bread pudding, peach slump, peach salsa, caramelized peaches (with sweet ricotta) and cold peach strawberry soup.
“Do you know where these peach trees came from?” I asked, after I remembered that I was technically on assignment and expected to deliver some hard facts to interested readers. “No clue,” said my host, “but I know who does.” We stopped at a nearby real estate office, where the managing agent informed us that his grandfather had a century earlier brought saplings to the neighborhood from a small island-half Italian and half Croatian-in the Adriatic Sea, and that the rest were cultivated from these original trees. In the old days, he continued, there used to be a parade each summer to celebrate the harvest.
“Why did it stop?” I asked.
“It didn’t, really,” he said, but went on to confess that most of the remaining marchers were ghostly souls returned to earth after expressing disappointment with the nectar of the gods.