Add Texas peaches to any old thing, and perfection results.
When I was a little girl, I routinely turned up my nose at ice cream. Still, I requested the homemade peach variety every summer instead of a birthday cake. My grandpa would drag out the ice-cream maker from the garage to the back porch. With rock salt and a bowl of sliced ripe peaches, he'd crank out the best treat I can ever remember.
Our peaches came from Gillespie County in the middle of rolling Hill Country. Last year, I decided to explore the history of this sweet fruit, so I traveled to Stonewall for the annual JAMboree, the town's peach festival and rodeo. I sampled my fill of peach ice creams (almost as good as my Gran's). I shook hands with an honest-to-goodness Peach Queen (the envy of every female in town--including me) and tiptoed into the peach contests to query the judges. I know you'll scoff when I say this, but the entire experience was, well, just peachy.
And the Winner Is...
Let's begin with judge Bluefford Hancock. To his knowledge, he's participated in every JAMboree peach contest ever held in Stonewall.
"The first year I judged, it was wet up to our knees, but we didn't care," says Bluefford. "Everybody pretty well recognizes that Stonewall is the peach capital of Texas. The JAMboree has given the town a kickoff to peach season. We get publicity from Austin and San Antonio; then people come to Gillespie County to buy our peaches. There's nothing in the world that beats the reputation of being the best, and that's what we are here."
When judging, Bluefford looks for uniformity of size and color in the fruit. Also, he investigates for blemishes and insects. Taste is not a consideration in his part of the judging.
The rest of the contests take place behind closed doors inside a school classroom, where a group of judges sample homemade jams, jellies, preserves, pies, and cobblers. For a dish to win, peach flavor must shine through the recipe. Winners can take home up to $100 in prize earnings.
Choosing winning peaches comes from the heart. Bluefford tells me, "Sweetheart, it ain't ripe till the juice runs down your chin. That's how to know a good peach." I'm also told that distinguishing a good peach from the bunch depends on your sense of smell. A flavorful peach has a sweet, flowery smell. Sometimes, in fact, a peach can look like the pits, but taste superb.
Some folks fancy certain peach varieties. Judge Lisa Baird prefers the Loring, as does judge C.W. Rust. C.W., whose friends call him "Rusty," calls the Loring "the Cadillac of peaches." Jamey Vogel, who co-owns an orchard by the same family name, also votes the Loring as tops, but his wife, Terri, claims Dixiland as her favorite.
The Soul of Stonewall
You see, peaches are personal. Take joking about the fruit, for example. In this town, making fun of peaches and the art of growing them is as tacky as making fun of someone's mama. Jamey Vogel says to a buddy, "Hey, when did you travel to Georgia to buy those peaches you're entering?" Jamey's pal, carefully unwrapping his prized peaches for the contest, doesn't even chuckle at the joke. Peaches are sacred in these parts. There's only one factor everyone can agree on: Like everything in the Lone Star State, the bigger the peaches, the better.
The ones grown in this part of the state taste so sweet, they're like candy. In fact, 6-year-old peach picker Baylie Vogel, daughter of Jamey and Terri, tells me her parents have her on a five-peach-a-day limit. "She'd eat them all day," says her mom. With tattered roadside stands selling peaches in every form, from pie and cobbler to jelly and yogurt, if you tire of one peach treat, you can just switch to another. And seeing those perfectly plump spheres hanging on every tree branch makes you want to reach out and pluck a few.
A Family Affair
The JAMboree is the social event of the year in Stonewall. Jamey tells me he looks forward to the weekend all year long. Bluefford and his family turn the two days into an annual reunion and wedding anniversary party. That makes sense because the weekend is such a rip-roarin' good time.
For the most part, the events of the JAMboree repeat every year. During the third Friday and Saturday of June, the festival gets started with a Friday morning breakfast. The real action, however, picks up that evening at 8, when the rodeo takes center stage, followed by a boot-scootin' dance at 9:30.
Saturday morning begins with a 5K run/walk and a ten o'clock parade, when the town dresses up trucks and tractors in celebration of peach season. The afternoon packs in a contest or two, a washer-pitching tournament, children's activities, and the Peach Queen interviews. The evening closes with another rodeo (where the queen is crowned) and dance.
Jimmy Duecker, a Stonewall resident, says, "The whole Texas Hill Country revolves around peaches in one form or another. As far back as the thirties, people were driving here to buy peaches."
Many peach festivals are about just that--peaches. Stonewall focuses on the fruit, of course, but the people here also work at coming together as a town. If you visit for the JAMboree, you'll see why this homespun part of Texas is so special. Plus, you'll start your summer off right with some homemade peach ice cream just like my grandpa's.
For more information:
Contact the Stonewall Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 1, Stonewall, TX 78671; (830) 644-2735 or www.stonewalltexas.com.