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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.19.06

Nuts About Pecans

Food History


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pecan

Hot dogs and baseball are familiar icons, but if you’re talking about true all-Americans, you might want to include the pecan. Pecans are indigenous to North America—and the fossil record seems to indicate that pecans were here before humans were.

The word pecan comes from the Algonquian paccan, which means “nut that must be cracked with a stone.” Pecans were important to many Native American groups. The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked on the coast of what is now Texas and held captive by Native Americans from 1529 to 1535, wrote that the indigenous people subsisted on pecans, and even planned their movements and activities around the harvesting of the nuts. Native Americans pressed oil from pecans, used ground pecans to thicken stews, mixed the nutmeats into vegetable dishes, and carried roasted pecans to sustain them while traveling.

Pecans appear to have originated along the southern reaches of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and in Texas along the Rio Grande. Over time, they were spread north and east, seeds carefully selected and planted in the river valleys that were the traditional, seasonal migratory routes of some Native American groups. The European explorers who began giving New World discoveries scientific names first encountered pecans at the northernmost limits of the nuts’ range, and that is how they ended up with the name Carya illinoensis, the Illinois hickory. (Hickory is another word from an Algonquian language; it is derived from powcohiccora, the name of a creamy liquid or “milk” made from pounded hickory nuts.)

Thomas Jefferson boosted the popularity of pecans when, in the 1770s, he moved some trees from the Mississippi valley to Monticello. He made a gift of several trees to George Washington, who planted them at Mount Vernon in 1775, where three of them survive to this day. However, cultivating pecans was difficult, and remained a hobby for avid gardeners, though a modest trade in wild pecans started up, centered in New Orleans.

It was an enslaved African named Antoine, a gardener at Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation, who laid the foundation for improvements in breeding pecans. In 1846–1847, he developed a way of grafting branches from the best of the wild varieties onto seedling pecan stocks. Sadly, his landmark pecan orchard was destroyed by Union Soldiers during the Civil War. But his discovery was not lost, and it opened up an era of commercial pecan growing.

After the Civil War, a freed slave helped pecans make the next leap forward. George Washington Carver, the brilliant agricultural scientist who joined Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute, was researching crops that could reduce malnutrition and increase income in the South. He created numerous products from pecans, and suggested that pecans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts could replace cotton as the region’s primary cash crops.

In Texas, wild pecans were sufficiently abundant to create an industry—and the pecan became the official state tree. Even today, most of the approximately 70 million pecan trees in Texas are wild. However, because wild pecan trees do not produce as many nuts as cultivated varieties, it is Georgia that leads in pecan production.

You might think that, like most of the other New World discoveries, this sweet, flavorful nut would have rocketed around the world, becoming indispensable in a wide range of cuisines. Not so. Pecans are finicky. They like very specific types of soil, and each variety of pecan likes a very specific type of climate. Pecans need to be near rivers, and they require high heat, day and night, during the growing season. If they don’t get everything they want, they simply won’t produce enough nuts to make them commercially viable. (Conversely, if it is happy with where it’s growing, a single pecan tree can produce 400 pounds of pecans.) Up until the mid 1900s, this finicky nature meant almost no one outside the United States was growing pecans. Agricultural science has now brought us to the place where success stories have emerged in a few places—South Africa, Australia, Israel—but more than 80 percent of all pecans are still American born. And Americans loves pecans; after peanuts, they are the most popular nut in the U.S. (Actually, technically speaking, because peanuts are legumes, and not nuts, pecans are number one, but when speaking of economic importance, peanuts get lumped in with true nuts.)

Though you can now find shelled pecans in cellophane bags year ‘round, these nuts were traditionally only available after harvest in late fall, and that is still generally when in-shell nuts appear in stores. As a result, pecans have long been associated with winter festivities, appearing in celebratory pecan pies and fruitcakes—and that’s still when you’re most likely to see them in stores.

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