Sitting here eating peaches from a can, I’m set to wondering about the prevalence of canned peaches in post-apocalyptic fiction. To cite a few examples, I recently encountered this trope in Season 2 of the video-game The Walking Dead (2014), in which the player-character Clementine is handed a can of peaches:
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the man and the boy discover a cache of supplies, in which canned peaches are a notable delicacy, marking a respite and return to normality amongst the carnage of the new world. They also mark out those who had been the fruit-eating “good guys,” as opposed to the carnivorous, cannibalistic “bad guys”:
He pulled one of the boxes down and clawed it open and held up a can of peaches. It’s here because someone thought it might be needed.
But they didn’t get to use it.
No. They didnt.
Is it okay for us to take it?
Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like we would want them to.
They were the good guys?
Yes. They were.
Like us. Yes.
So it’s okay.
Yes. It’s okay.
they ate a can of peaches. They licked the spoons and tipped the bowls and drank the rich sweet syrup. (147-9)
In John Hilcoat’s film adaptation (2009) Viggo Mortensen’s character likewise makes a beeline for the stacks of Dole brand canned fruit.
And in Def-Con 4 (1985), a post-apocalyptic community jails an old woman, Mrs. Boyd (Florence Paterson, on the left of this image), for stealing a can of peaches:
“A can of peaches,” she says, “can you believe it?”
Well, can we? As much as cans of food are the most sought-after items post-apocalypse, peaches nonetheless seem to be the most valuable in multiple instances. See, for instance, A Boy and His Dog (1975), in which Vic (Don Johnson) uses canned food to buy entrance to a pornographic movie, and passes off a can of beets to the illiterate doorman as the more desirable can of peaches. I don’t think there’d be much resistance to the idea that fruit is in general more desirable than beets, but the fact that it is peaches in particular contributes to the idea that this is a recurring motif. In fact it recurs so often that it even seems to have become an in-joke, with canned peaches often being the most abundantly available food, to the point where characters are sick of them: “‘Peaches’ she groaned. ‘Why do I always get peaches?'” (Justin Cronin, The Passage, 2010).
There is a GoodReads thread discussing this very issue, with some interesting ideas put forward, such as that peaches are the canned food typically neglected at the back of the cupboard (and so consequently the last to be taken when residents are evacuating or when looters come by to collect supplies). They are not just forgotten, however, but a forgotten luxury–they require an infrastructure to grow, pick, and can the peaches, and then to fly and truck these across the world to be sold in stores. In the post-apocalyptic world what had been an everyday, forgotten luxury is now something that would be impossible to reproduce. Peaches have a history as a luxury food item. Clemson University’s website states that peaches first reached North America via Spanish missionaries in 1571, and Wikipedia states that peaches first reached England and France in the 17th century. At these times peaches were not widely available, and were therefore coveted, luxurious fruits. Their exoticism and their relative youth in the English-speaking and Western world may therefore have some bearing on their appearance in post-apocalyptic fiction.
The food itself is also a significant departure from the cold, grey, post-apocalyptic world, a food that is yellow-orange, sweet, and fresh. Novelist Sarah Lyons Fleming suggests that canned peaches are “inextricably linked to summer, to warmth, to juices running down our chins, to swimming and being a kid and not having to board the windows against things alive and/or dead. So maybe, when the world is gray and destroyed, when we’re fighting for survival and eating things that we may have turned our noses up at before it all went south, the bright sweetness of peaches will be like coming home.”
Why it is so often peaches, however, and not canned cherries, apricots, pineapple, etc. is hard to determine. It may simply be that a few fiction writers started with peaches, and that the motif took off from there as homage upon homage.
Lastly, what are we to make of an episode from the most recent (fourth) season of The Walking Dead (2010-present) in which Beth (Emily Kinney), looking to have her first drink of alcohol, finds only peach schnapps left at a golf resort bar? Is this a reference to the same motif?
If anyone reading this has any suggestions, please do let me know in the comments section below. Thanks!
For other post-apocalypse works featuring canned peaches, see the TV show Jericho (2006-8), the movie Hell (2011), the video-game The Last of Us (2013), etc. etc.
A Boy and His Dog. Dir: L. Q. Jones, 1975. Film.
Def-Con 4. Dir: Paul Donovan, 1985. Film.
Fleming, Sarah Lyons. “Canned Peaches and the Apocalypse.” Writing, Zombies and Whatnot. Oct. 7, 2013. Web. Apr. 21, 2014.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. London: Picador-Pan Macmillan, 2010. Print.
The Road. Dir. John Hillcoat, 2009. Film.
The Walking Dead: Season 2. Telltale Games, 2014. PC game.