Turns out that April 13 is National Peach Cobbler Day. I didn’t know that till I saw it on my newsfeed this morning. But, hey, there are lots of things I don’t know! It may not have been on my calendar, but it comes up on Food Tells a Story’s radar because Peach Cobbler is a fixture on the typical “soul food” menu.
First, note that we’re not talking about fruit cobblers in general, but peach cobblers. The peach seems to have originated in China, and slowly found its way eastward. This is reflected in its scientific name, prunus persica. The “persica” part refers Persia, modern-day Iran. Alexander the Great is credited with bringing peaches from Persia to Europe, c.330 BCE. From there, the Spanish brought peaches to the New World.
The climate of the American South is very hospitable to the particular growing requirements of the peach. On the one hand, the tree needs a chilling period comparable to typical southern autumn or winter temperatures (32-50F), so it won’t produce fruit in a tropical climate. On the other hand, it also won’t set fruit if the winter gets too cold (anything much below 5F). That makes its prospects iffy in many northern states, though that doesn’t stop us from trying. Indeed, Sioux Falls, South Dakota (my boyhood home) has a peach festival coming up this summer:
Nonetheless, we think of the peach as a predominantly southern fruit. Indeed, National Peach Cobbler Day was created in the 1950s by the Georgia Peach Council, as in Georgia, the Peach State.
So that accounts for the peach half of the equation. But why a cobbler? Why not just serve fresh sliced peaches? Making cobblers isn’t terribly complicated (especially if it’s an actual cobbler–see below), but they still take some work. If you want to serve it warm, with vanilla ice cream melting on top, it may tie up the oven in that crucial last half-hour before dinner. In any case, the typical cobbler recipe calls for a lot of sugar, and these days a lot of people would argue that a sugary dessert isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice.
Peach cobbler at Sweetie Pie’s, St. Louis.
Well, let’s blame the English. Many English settlers who came to Colonial America had a thing about eating raw fruit. During an outbreak of the plague in 1569, for instance, the English actually made it illegal to sell fresh fruit. They also didn’t like the taste of fresh fruit. In any case, in the days before our modern systems of rapid transport, fruits were entirely seasonal. Thus, the “normal” taste of fruits such as the peach would have been in the form of pies and tarts, jams and jellies, and so on. In short, they’d cook it up and sugar it up by any means necessary.
The cobbler was, in turn, a good way for the English settlers to cope with conditions on the American frontier. It’s worth remembering that the American “frontier” was not just the Wild, Wild West. Throughout the antebellum period, much of the south was considered frontier territory as well. And cooking on the frontier was demanding.
Some homes had a kitchen hearth with a beehive oven built into the fireplace wall. The photo below shows a 1764 beehive oven at the back of the hearth at the Hanford-Silliman House in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Some had a freestanding outdoor clay or brick oven. One big advantage of an outdoor oven was that if a fire got out of control (or, more likely, if a female cook’s long skirt caught fire), the accident wouldn’t end up burning down the whole house. The photo below shows historical reenactors at a clay oven at the Van Wyck Homestead, Fishkill, New York:
But many homes had no oven at all, even among families wealthy enough to have servants, whether paid, bound, or enslaved. All baking was done in iron pots, over hot coals in the open hearth. Sliced and sugared peaches would be placed at the bottom of the pot, and then biscuit dough, perhaps leftover from breakfast, would be dropped over the fruit. Presto! Cobbler.
Pots hanging in the kitchen hearth at Andrew Jackson’s mansion, The Hermitage, in Nashville.
That brings us to the next step in our story: Many of the cooks making those cobblers, especially in the south, were African American, both before and after emancipation. For instance, at Andrew Jackson’s plantation, The Hermitage, in Nashville, Tennessee, his original cook was “Old” Hannah (1770-1846), followed by her daughter, Betty (b.1793-d. before 1870), pictured. Betty is pictured below:
It is said that Betty was a demanding chef, and was so hard on the children working in her kitchen that Jackson instructed his overseer to keep an eye on her, to stop her from being too harsh with them. Imagine that!
For the poor families of yesteryear, black or white, the first issue with a peach cobbler would not have been the peaches, which were widely available across the south, but the flour and sugar. But when flour and sugar became finally cheap enough, the cooks knew full well what to do. That’s why the peach cobbler has a pedigree that makes it a legitimate dessert item on any soul food menu. It embodies a lot of African American history.
This is the peach cobbler I made for my Dad’s 96th birthday party in July 2015. Not the prettiest one you’ll ever see, but it shows what a true cobbler is. Some maintain that “cobbler” comes from this rough surface created by the biscuit dough, which reminded some of a cobblestone street.
If that doesn’t look like a cobbler to you, be aware that in soul food cooking, “cobbler” tends to be defined loosely. It’s often applied to desserts made with pie dough. They’re essentially a rectangular peach pie known as a pandowdy, and the fanciest ones even have latticed crusts:
This masterpiece comes from Chef Carmen’s Soul Food Kitchen, in Decatur, Georgia.
For those who are interested in the technicalities, L.V. Anderson has written a good article on the subject of what makes cobblers different from other closely-related desserts. For instance, it turns out that my favorite “cobbler” is, technically, a buckle. In a true cobbler like my Dad’s birthday cobbler above, the fruit is laid down first and the biscuit batter is dropped on top of it. In a peach buckle, the peaches are laid on top of a thin cake batter that rises up, around, and over the fruit as it bakes. Paula Deen’s popular “cobbler” recipe is technically a buckle.
My own peach buckle, fresh and hot from the oven.
Here’s the recipe for the buckle above. I like this recipe because it’s ridiculously easy, and only takes a few minutes to whip up. It calls for canned peaches, and you can call it whatever you want: