Today, the pecan is a luxury but long ago – VERY long ago, more than 8,000 years – indigenous people in what is now the swath of land from Illinois through the southern United States and into the river valleys of Mexico took much of their nutrition from this oil and mineral rich nut. The name, however, comes from the Algonquin word “pacane,” which means “nut requiring a stone to crack”. How did the northern Algonquin tribes come to give their word to a southern nut?
Was it Thomas Jefferson or George Washington?
Well, I surmise that it had to do with a pecan tree offered to Thomas Jefferson in the late 18th century, which he planted at Monticello, in Virginia. He gave a sapling to George Washington who planted it in Mount Vernon, and one thing led to another so that the pecan tree – a hickory relative – sowed itself in the north.
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In the late 19th century, the pecan was still a wild tree, the crop left to chance. But in 1872 a a freed slave by the name of Antoine (no last name indicated), used his grafting skills with the pecan tree and won an award for his pecans in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. His grafted trees are on record as the first improved plantings and his work was fundamental to the pecan industry.
Pecans are cultivated throughout the southern United States, which produces 80% of the world’s supply, with the remainder produced in Mexico. Georgia is the major producer, Alabama has named the pecan its state nut, and Texas claims pecan pie as its state dessert. Few nuts generate such loyalty and pride.
The only real controversy surrounding the pecan is its pronunciation. Depending on where you find yourself in the south, it changes. I’m a northerner so I have always let the word slip out with a sort of “peecahn” sound. Wrong. IT should be pronounced “puh-cahn” with emphasis on the “puh”, according to pecan producers in Texas. Once you go elsewhere, however, you hear pee-caan (really wrong according to my Texas source), puhcan (slurry, emphasis nowhere – quite wrong according to same), and the infamous p’caaan.
It doesn’t matter how you say the name. What matters is that you eat the nut (or fruit – it’s actually a “drupe” which means fruit surrounded by a husk) – it’s full of gorgeous unsaturated fat that helps your joints, minerals which help your body and soul, and a sweet, almost floral flavor that sends your spirits to the moon. All of this gives the pecan a cachet no other nut has achieved in part because it is rare and expensive (there are just between 250 and 300 million tons produced each year as compared with the 3 billion tons of almonds produced), and in part because it is, quite simply, the queen of nuts. Thus, it deserves a central role in whatever dish it touches. Witness pecan pie. Whatever surrounds the pecan is flavorful yet simply a handmaiden.
Pecan Pie and Thanksgiving
Why has the pecan pie become vital to Thanksgiving? No one really can say except that the holiday and the harvest coincide and one can imagine that somehow the pilgrims had pecans and baked them into delicious pies. That is the romantic (and probably erroneous) version of the partnership. The real story is more prosaic. A Texas baker (name lost to history) won an award with her pecan pie. The Karo syrup company got ahold of the recipe, adapted it to include its syrup, and printed it on their jar labels in the 1920s. And voila. Today most recipes for pecan pie include Karo syrup, light or dark.
Finest Nuts on Earth
The pecan upholds its reputation as one of the finest nuts on earth, no matter how it is served and eaten. For our purposes we offer a recipe for pecan pie, one of the finest in the land, direct from the state of Texas and a fabulous cook named Velma Williams, cattle rancher (and baker) supreme.
Bon Appétit and More than Anything, Happy Thanksgiving!
- 3 large eggs lightly beaten
- ½ cup (100g) vanilla sugar
- 1 cup (250ml) dark Karo syrup, maple syrup or agave syrup
- ¼ cup (60ml) crème fraîche or heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1-1/4 cups (130g) pecan halves
- 1 prebaked 9-1/2 inch; 23.75cm removable bottom tart pan, from your favorite pastry recipe
- Preheat the oven to 400F (200C).
- Whisk the eggs, sugar, and the corn syrup together in a large bowl until thoroughly combined. Then, vigorously whisk in the sour cream, vanilla, and the salt and set aside.
- Place the pecans in an even layer in the pastry shell, arrange them in a patter, rounded side up). Carefully pour the egg mixture over them without disturbing the pattern, transfer the pie to a baking sheet and place it in the bottom third of the oven.
- Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350F (180C) and continue baking until the filling is set, another 35 minutes. Remove it from the oven and let it cool to room temperature on a wire rack before serving.