The Keifer Pear

As you walk around your neighborhood in October you may have noticed fence line or alley trees loaded with large heavy hard pears. You reach up and pick one as the tree limbs are breaking under their load. You take a bite. It’s gritty, sweet but not too. The texture resembles a potato more than a pear. It is a Keiffer Pear though some think it is far from pearish. “... I doubt the Keiffer is nearer being a pear than a mule is being a horse. I think the quince is the father of one and the jackass the other.” (from the Annual Report of the Ohio State Board of Agriculture 1895) Actually the parents were not mules nor horses but the oriental Sand Pear and the european Bartlett with the help of accidental midwife Peter Keiffer.

Mr. Keiffer was an Alsacian who had worked for twelve years in the garden of the King of France before immigrating to the United States. In 1853 he planted a small nursery in Roxborough near Philadelphia. Keiffer imported much of his stock from the Belgian nursery Van Houten including Chinese Sand Pear seed. He sold saplings of the Sand Pear as an ornamental. Keiffer also grew Bartlett Pears. One day he noticed a seedling with unusual foliage so he saved it.

The Sand Pear has large beautiful flowers, almost inedible “sandy” fruit but is hardy and fire blight resistant. This made it a perfect mate for the weak but buttery european Bartlett. The seedling which Keiffer saved produced pear tasty enough that he gave them away to friends. Thirteen years later Peter Keiffer entered his new pear in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 where one of the judges, a nursery man by the name of William Parry, paid Keiffer for a few graftings. Mr. Parry recognized the commercial value of Keiffer’s pear. The reason the Ohioan Aggie quoted above disparaged the Keiffer was on account of how prolific it was - which he feared would lower pear prices, and the fact that it was fire blight resistant so it grew in Gulf states which might take away market share from northern growers of fancy older european pears like the Bartlett. He was more interested in protecting his market than introducing new fruits to the world.

Peter Keiffer died in 1890 but his pear lived on, though in this modern age the Keiffer is rarely seen in the grocery store. Many productive 90 year old pears stand next to farm house ruins.
American Heirloom Pears are extremely rare 19th and 20th century pears of American origin including the Keiffer. The Keiffer pear we found in our alley is on the Southwest Regis-Tree of endangered or rare fruits and nuts, and listed on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste as one of 28 rare varieties of pears. “The Ark of Taste seeks, first and foremost, to save an economic, social and cultural heritage - a universe of animal breeds, fruit and vegetables, cured meats, cheese, cereals, pastas, cakes and confectionery.” As Michael Pollan, author of Botany of Desire says, “Slow Food recognizes that the best place to preserve biological and cultural diversity is not in museums, or zoos but, as it were, on our plates: by finding new markets for precious-but-obscure foodstuffs.” This attention to food is not the gourmet-driven pursuit of a culinary elite, but a grass-roots movement to save that which is most precious to us all—the unassailable pleasure of food grown with respect for the earth, and for the people who grow and eat it.

Last fall, our egg and honey supplier, Nouvella Newman, brought me two bushels full of Keiffer Pears which grew on her ranch. The tree was planted when the ranch was first homesteaded - right after Parry's nursery went into the Keifer Pear mail order business. Nouvella had so many pears she didn’t know what to do with them and was feeding them to her livestock. She wondered what I could make with them suggesting that we could make jam. I could feel the sandy texture in my mouth and while the fruit was sweet it was bland. I kept thinking potato or jicama, then I recalled a recipe from Bernard Clayton’s 1978 classic cookbook, Bread’s Of France, which used pears. The recipe produces a marvelous slightly sweet bread that goes especially well with cheeses, or toasted and buttered with jam. The freshly ground black pepper adds just the right amount of zip, hardly noticeable but important.

Because fruit flys had started to attack the pears we turned them into puree, froze the puree in bread batch portions and put Pepper Pear French Toast on our brunch menu. I form the bread into two pound coronas so our french toast is presented in two beautiful wedges. It will be several more months before we run out of Keiffer Pear Puree and then we will anticipate fall.