A Southern duel over peach pride

Alabama lawmakers declared the peach the state fruit last week, ripening its friendly rivalry with neighboring Georgia.

You won't catch Jimmy Martin biting into a peach from the Peach State.

The Alabama state representative says he's got nothing against Georgia, per se. But the fruit from the trees in his native Chilton County, he says, have brighter "cheeks" and a juicier tang. That's why he proposed that the peach become the state fruit of Alabama - a motion that easily passed the Alabama House of Representatives last week. "Chilton County, Alabama, is the center of the peach," Rep. Martin, a Democrat, proclaims. And he doesn't mean the pit.

That claim doesn't sit well with some Georgia growers. After all, Georgia is a state that drops an 800-pound fiberglass peach from a tower in Atlanta on New Year's Eve and which has, to the consternation of travelers, named dozens of roads Peachtree this and Peachtree that. Alabama legislators knew the fuss they'd be stirring up. In fact, so keen were they on ribbing their neighbor state that they added the peach even though Alabama already has a state fruit: the blackberry.

"Georgia has some of the best peaches in the country, second only to those in Alabama," says Alabama Rep. Cam Ward (R) of Alabaster, exercising the peculiar Southern trait of couching a dig in a compliment. "Georgia has done a lot with the economic boom of Atlanta, but at the same time we like to point out some of the areas where they fall second."

While both states were carved from the old Creek Indian Territory, Georgia is an original colony that encouraged national and international interests while Alabama became a plantation frontier where industrialists made deals with cotton farmers to make sure outsiders didn't move in on their cash flow - ancient handshakes that haunt the state to this day, historians say.

From legendary collegiate gridiron battles to tracking contests between university biologists hunting Asian soybean rust in the vast bean fields along the kudzu-bedecked borderlands, the disparity between the two Deep South powers breeds a sometimes heady friction.

While Georgia got the Olympics in 1996, Alabama has to make do with the annual Route 127 Corridor Outdoor Sale (read: flea market) that is, at 450 miles, the longest outdoor shopping event in the world. Atlanta has Coca-Cola, while Scottsboro, Ala., is the place where all the world's lost luggage is sold. Georgia has teams in all four major sports leagues; Alabama has none.

Some rivalries are darker: The two states, along with Florida, are embroiled in a water war. Alabama accuses Georgia of taking too much water from the Chattahoochee River, boosting its development while unfairly leaving Alabama behind.

So it's no surprise, perhaps, that Alabama wants a piece of the peach pie.

"The peach, for Georgia, is the kind of evocative symbol that you want to associate with your state," says Fitz Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "A Georgia peach refers to both the fruit and Georgia women who are supposed to be sweet and beautiful and speak with a syrupy drawl. Alabama you still think of as the cradle of the Confederacy, and there's no single commodity that ... symbolizes the state."

At the same time, Alabama has a legitimate claim to the peach - in taste, if not in volume. (California is actually the nation's biggest grower of peaches, with South Carolina and Georgia duking it out each year for second and third place, while Alabama is a distant fourth.) Even objective peach concerns such as the National Peach Council in Columbia, S.C., proclaims Alabama peaches to be among the country's best. Moreover, the annual Peach Festival in Clanton, Ala., is a must-stop on the state's political circuit.

Still, Georgia has capitalized most eloquently on its iconic fruit - a reputation growers here say they won't let go of lightly.

"I don't think anybody in Georgia has got any animosity against other peaches in the United States, but we do cherish our tradition of being called the Peach State and we're going to try to hold onto it," says grower Bob Dickey from his 100,000-tree farm near Macon, Ga. "For now, I'd call it a friendly rivalry."

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