In the days before refrigeration and frozen food aisles in grocery stores, people had to be creative with their produce in order to maximize the benefits from their harvest and minimize spoilage. Peaches, a favorite Southern crop, are no exception as they are used for peach butter, jam, preserves, bread, cakes and ice cream. One particular peach recipe that has a long history in South Carolina but has faded into relative obscurity is peach leather. Peach leather has its roots from the days when homemakers would dry this sugared purée in the sun to create the homemade version of today’s Fruit Roll-Ups®, although peach leather is quite tender.
Sarah Spruill’s family has been making this leather for generations. “My father’s family made leather at Somerset Plantation and at White Hall, both of which are now under one of the Santee Cooper Lakes,” Sarah recalls. Caroline Porcher Cain, her great aunt, made peach leather and sold it privately to customers in the early 1900s, including clients in New York City.
When Aunt Caddie, as she was known in the family, was no longer able to make the leather, William Cain, Sarah’s father, took over the process in the 1950s and carried on the family tradition. William apparently caused quite a stir with the amount of sugar he was buying from
the local grocer. “The store manager asked him to stop buying so much sugar from him; otherwise he’d have to report Daddy to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explostives in case he was using it to make moonshine!” she laughs.
They eventually transitioned from using peaches to using apricots, though the process was still the same. “You must wait until just before the first frost in the fall,” says Sarah, “because it’s hard to make it in humid weather.” While it was difficult to master all of the steps of making the leather, some of Sarah’s fondest memories include making leather with her family and listening to stories of her father’s childhood. In his day, one child read from Dickens or Shakespeare to keep everyone entertained while they worked. The process involves cooking dried peaches then spreading the peach to dry on flat sheets. Sarah says, “Spreading is the hardest part of the process. The leather won’t dry right if it is not spread uniformly.”
Sarah has now taken on the family charge of making peach leather and hopes to pass the tradition down to her children and grandchildren, although she won’t share the recipe with anyone just yet. “The way we make it has never been published as far as I know, and I am sworn to secrecy. My daughters and niece know a little about it, but one of these days, I’m going to have a family weekend and show them how to do it from start to finish,” she smiles. “It’s important to keep a sense of place, a sense of family.”
The process involves cooking dried peaches then spreading them uniformly, to dry on flat sheets. The sheets of cooked peaches must lie in the sun to dry. Sarah then places the peach leather squares into a large amount of sugar. She makes sure to layer the sugar heavily on the leather to make each piece perfectly sweet. Once basked in sugar, Sarah rolls each square for easy handling.
Sarah has a special way of packaging her peach leather for friends and family to enjoy. She keeps her family peach leather recipe secret, but plans to show her children and grandchildren how to do it in hopes of carrying on the family tradition.