Georgia is known as the pecan state, but pecan trees grow in West Virginia, too. My father-in-law grew pecan trees on his city lot in Weirton. It was always a treat when he shared his bounty with us, especially during this time of year with holidays fast approaching.
Pecans are native to North America. They are members of the hickory genus and are not truly nuts. Technically, they are drupes, a fruit with a single pit surrounded by a husk. They have a buttery flavor and high nutritional content. The name “pecan” comes from the Native American (Algonquin) word “pacane” describing “nuts requiring a stone to crack.”
Natives who lived in the pre-colonial southeastern regions of North America used pecans as a major food source. They were even used as currency among some tribes. There were others who used pecans to make a fermented drink called “powcohicora,” from which the word “hickory” is derived.
Reliance on pecans for nutrition and trade led to pecan tree cultivation. When American colonists started using pecans in commerce in the 1700s and early 1800s, they, too, began to plant pecan orchards.
French Americans in Louisiana were making pralines with pecans during the 18th century. Original praline recipes called for almonds or hazelnuts, but settlers had to resort to using what they had, so they substituted native pecans. Pralines sold in the U.S. today are typically made with pecans.
By the late 1700s, the pecan’s popularity expanded along the Atlantic Seaboard. The first commercial pecan planting in the United States was in 1772 in Long Island, New York. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew pecans.
In 1822, Abner Landrum discovered a grafting technique that produced pecans that were consistently larger in size, had nice shape and shell characteristics, and were superb in flavor. Landrum’s discovery was not widely known until a former African-American slave named Antoine successfully grafted an outstanding wild pecan to seedling stock.
Antoine’s clone won the Best Pecan Exhibited award at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1856. His grafting technique led to the production of improved pecan varieties that were of consistent quality.
Pecans were not always used as extensively as they are today. The USDA promoted the use of pecans as a replacement for meat during WWII, since meat was largely reserved for men in uniform. Nuts were promoted as good sources of protein, and meatless meals were encouraged. The Chicago Daily Tribune published a savory pecan loaf recipe as a meat substitute.
While I do not have the original recipe, instructions for making pecan loaves are still available. In addition to pecans, they often include ingredients like rice, cracker crumbs, milk, salt, butter and eggs. The ingredients are combined and baked in a bread pan.
To encourage more consumption, the government placed a price ceiling on pecans and other nuts. Pecan growers complained that declining prices hurt their business, and, eventually, the government agreed to buy surplus pecans.
By 1952, federal coffers had more than three million pounds of excess nuts, which they gave to schools throughout the country. School cafeteria managers had to come up with creative ways to use pecans. One Chicago school superintendent said it was a challenge to find ways to feed 800 pounds of pecans to 1,300 elementary students.
This federal program of supplying schools with surplus pecans led pecan orchardists to increase production to earn extra money on the margins — a practice we see in industrial agriculture today. With increased production and greater federal purchases, consumption had to be encouraged.
Americans who were familiar with pecans usually ate them raw as a snack. The surplus the government agreed to buy from the producers meant that even more new ways had to be found to use pecans. Cookbook writers, newspaper food columnists and chefs were encouraged to create new ways to use pecans. Naturally, the flavor and texture of pecans work nicely in desserts.
The government got into the act by sending Pecan Caramel Rolls in overseas care packages to American GIs. Those men and women remembered these treats, and Pecan Caramel Rolls soon became a hit stateside. The USDA called pecans a “Victory Food Special,” and encouraged Americans to consume them as an expression of postwar national pride.
The first pecan pie recipes emerged in the ’30s with the invention of Karo Corn Syrup, but pecan pie wasn’t popularized until the 1940s and ’50s. By the 1950s, most Americans had heard of or tasted pecan pie, and it became the iconic dessert served at Thanksgiving meals. Pecans are associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, largely due to pecans being harvested in the fall.
By the 1950s, the relentless surplus of pecans was being used in all sorts of innovative culinary creations. There were pecan pies, pecan rolls, pecan puddings and more. Pecans were tossed into savory and sweet salads. They were added to asparagus dishes and chicken roulades. Spiced and candied pecans became a party food.
Pecans have come a long way since their “wild” days. There are more than 1,000 varieties and many are named for Native American tribes like Cheyenne, Choctaw, Mohawk, Shawnee and Sioux.
Besides adding a delicious, crunchy texture and buttery flavor to your holiday dishes, pecans are nutrition in a nutshell and rank among the top 15 foods determined by the USDA with the highest levels of antioxidants. They are a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, too.
Whether you call them “pee-cans” or “peh-kahns,” remember that pecans are not just for pecan pie. They are a great tasting snack and a versatile ingredient in many recipes.