Some people who grew up on big round peaches are developing a taste for a variety that looks like it's been squashed by a dictionary.
Saturn peaches - small, flat versions of the old summer staple - are just starting to catch on in Pennsylvania, and the few fruit stands that carry the variety are having trouble keeping them in stock.
"That's one of the good things about them, is that they sell so quickly. You never have to worry about storing them," said Kay Hollabaugh of Hollabaugh Bros. Inc. Fruit Farm and Market. "They really sell themselves because they're so unique."
Flat peaches have been harvested in Asia for hundreds of years, and some varieties were grown in New York orchards as early as the 1820s. Current flat peach varieties in the United States are descendants of the Chinese peento peach, brought to the United States in 1869.
But only in the last several years have flat peaches been introduced to wide audiences in the United States. Hollabaughs planted their first seedlings in 2001, and sold their first full crop last season.
Frieda's Inc., a California-based specialty fruit company often credited with introducing Americans to kiwi fruit, may also get credit for popularizing flat peaches. They first rolled out Donut peaches in the mid-1980s and now provide them to supermarkets across the country.
"There's a huge market for smaller, cute things - you can pack it in a school lunch and all that," said Tristan Millar, marketing and product development director for Frieda's. "They are smaller, and so that does appeal for children. And they deliver on taste - they absolutely deliver on taste."
To demonstrate that, Hollabaugh just had to give a bite to 81-year-old Leonard Grabowski, of Gettysburg. He had seen these UFOs - unidentified fruit-like objects - but never tried them until Hollabaugh offered him a taste at the market just north of Biglerville.
He looked at it askance at first, but once he'd popped it in his mouth, Grabowski started to smile. Before long, he'd bought a quart of the funny-looking fruit.
"I'd seen them before, but I didn't even know what they were," Grabowski said. "They're good. They're really sweet."
In part, that's because the flat peaches currently on the market - specific varieties include the Donut, Saturn, Jupiter and Galaxy - are all white peaches, with a softer flesh, less acid and more sugar than traditional yellow peaches. That gives them a sweeter, more delicate flavor than the bolder, more acidic yellow peaches.
"With our grocery stores so plastered with so many kinds of produce of all sorts, it's hard to compete. This is something that really grabs people," Hollabaugh said. "People are enamored of their appearance, and once they try them, they're hooked."
But unlike the white-peach craze that took off a few years back, prompting some farmers to plant almost half of their peach acreage in whites, flat peaches remain a niche market.
"It's a novelty right now," said John Lott, of Bear Mountain Orchards in Aspers. "Do we sell a lot of them? No. But everyone's taking one or two, see what they're like. But it seems like people like them, and when they like them they'll keep eating them."
Flat peaches are also popular with growers for another reason - their premium prices. A quart of Saturns at Hollabaugh Bros. costs $5.50, compared with $3.50 for round peaches. Hollabaugh said that premium is necessary to remain competitive as American grocers and food processors continue to import foreign fruit.
"It's critical. The foreign market is becoming a real problem for us, especially with apples," Hollabaugh said. "But right now, you can't produce a stone fruit in China and get it into the United States in a way someone wants to eat it, so these really help."
By Dan Lewerenz