South Carolina grows the most delicious peaches - even Georgians think so.
"I understand unofficially that the best and the most tasty peaches are in Spartanburg County," an unnamed Georgia Department of Agriculture staffer in 2011 told The New York Times (which made an exception to its typically rigorous sourcing rules in deference to the summer fruit's importance.)
The state also is a leader in peach quantity, outpacing every state but California with its annual harvest of 200 million pounds. Although a portion of those peaches are directed to canning companies and baby food manufacturers, the vast majority of them are sold as fresh fruit to an eager audience of peach lovers.
According to the S.C. Department of Agriculture, enjoying the year's first peach in May is "a way of life in South Carolina."
What else is there to know about peaches? At least seven things.
1. The word "peach" comes from the confused Latin name for the fruit: "malum persicum," or Persian apple. Contrary to the long-held European belief that peaches originated in Persia, the fruit was first grown in China, which remains the world's top peach producer. The region's also home to the world's oldest peach trees, including a 1,000-year old specimen discovered in Tibet. Peaches probably traveled from China to Persia, and then on to Greece and Italy, reaching North America in the 1500s via Spanish explorers' ships.
2. In South Carolina, peaches typically have an orange cast: The color of Gaffney's famous water tower is a pretty good approximation of what state residents consider an ideal peach complexion. But in China, bright yellow-skinned peaches are favored, so growers cloak their peaches in paper bags to prevent red sun spots.
3. When South Carolina's peach economy was at its peak, there were 125 peach-packing sheds across the state. Now just about 10 remain.
4. Peach aroma is intoxicating but far from simple: It takes 80 chemical compounds to produce the distinctive smell of peaches.
5. Genetically, peach flesh is divided into three categories: Melting, nonmelting and stony hard. Americans are most familiar with the melting texture, but firm, crispy white peaches - classified as stony hard - are popular in Asia. Of course, even a melting peach will crunch before it's ripe.
6. Growers check a peach's color, sugar content and firmness, as well as the calendar, before picking. But if the peach is destined to take a long trip, it's often picked before full maturity, since soft flesh is more likely to bruise. That's why Clemson Cooperative Extension advises buying peaches from roadside stands or farmers markets. A properly ripened peach should have a well-defined crease and a slight give when pressed with the whole hand.
7. Although peaches figure into plenty of buttery desserts, they're a healthy choice when eaten raw. A peach has 59 calories, and is considered a good source of Vitamin C.