We made a trip to Goliad to enjoy the golden fall weather and to look for wintering birds. Lured on by a green space on the GPS, we followed a road which appeared to end on the San Antonio River. In a “wild” area next to a golf green we heard a wren calling and got out to look for him. Within seconds, I forgot about the wren completely.
There were pecans underfoot!
This little clearing had four or five old pecan trees. They were pretty much leafless, but I could see lots of the nut husks still on the limbs. And there were a goodly number of fallen pecans.
I went into gatherer mode instantly. I filled my pockets and sent my husband to see if we had any kind of container in the car. The pecans were large, and soon we had half a bucket full. We were gleeful!
My pecan gathering instinct was cultivated early on by my grandmother. One day each autumn, she took her grandchildren to Firemen’s Park (in Brenham, Texas) where we collected pecans. There were at least 10 trees in the park that produced very good nuts. I suspect they were all native pecans, not hybrids or grafted trees. Most of the pecans were small, and some were very small! Our favorite was the big tree that produced an abundance of tiny pecans, each about the size of the tip of a pinkie finger.
The lovely fall afternoon we’d spent gathering pecans was just the beginning of the tradition. A day or two later, all the kids were assembled at Grammy’s kitchen table for an afternoon of pecan cracking. The biggest challenge was cracking those little pecans. They were hard-shelled but absolutely packed with the best-tasting nut meats. Every corner of space inside those shells was crammed with the tender pecan flesh. You could not push a pick or even a fingernail between the meat and the shell. But we kids had nimble fingers and extracted a good bit of the prime nut bits. As a reward, we were allowed to eat any nut bit we winkled out, but never any from the bowl!
The nuts in that big bowl were destined for the treat of the season: pecan pie! The best pecan pie was the one at my grandmother’s table. It was the one made from pecans you personally had gathered, cracked and shelled.
Pecans are native to the eastern part of the United States and the river courses of South Texas and Mexico. They have long been a staple in the diets of wildlife and Native Americans. The Algonquin word, paccan, which means “any nut you need a stone to crack,” is the source of our modern word, pecan.
Tribal peoples throughout the pecan tree’s range devoted time to gathering the nuts. As early as 1528, Cabeza de Vaca wrote about the value of pecans to the native people. In his journal, he described the Miriame Indians, who lived near the Texas coast (but not on it). This tribe lived two months of the year camped under pecan groves. He said they spent the entire time cracking and eating pecans!
I can believe it. Pecans are a wonderful, staple food, containing over 70 percent fat (but it is in the form of healthy, unsaturated oil) and are high in protein but low in carbohydrates. They are rich in anti-oxidants and minerals. Still, a pound of pecans yields a whopping 3,633 calories! Graze on these for a couple of months in the fall and you’ll be prepared to survive the winter.
Pecan trees are highly variable in the size of the nuts and the shell thickness, as well as in taste. Settlers had favorite trees, but the planted nuts didn’t always breed true. For that, you needed a way to “clone” individual trees. It wasn’t until the 1800s that successful grafting of a twig from a superior wild pecan on to a pecan seedling was invented. This was accomplished at Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation. The gardener was a slave, known only to us as Antoine.
Antoine’s grafted pecan trees made history at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, where the nuts were given the Best Pecan Exhibited award. This clone was named “Centennial” and is still available today.
In the century and a half since then, pecans have been selected, hybridized and grafted ad infinitum. There are now over 1,000 different cultivars of pecan. A grower can select for large nut size, high protein, high kernel weight, paper thin shells, high production (every year instead of every other year crop), disease resistance and a host of other characteristics.
But for me, the deciding factor is taste. Some pecans just taste better than others. In a limited selection of six varieties, I chose the variety “Pawnee” as my favorite. It tasted like those tiny wild pecans from my grandmother’s day. It tasted like Thanksgiving. It tasted like pecan pie!