Snippets of Pecan History
The pecan legend is very old. Long before explorers or settlers arrived, pecans were harvested by Native Americans and used as food. They used other parts of the trees to make oils and dyes. Explorers began mentioning their encounters with pecans in their journals in the 1500s. In 1529, Cabeza de Vaca and his group of explorers were captured by Native Americans on the coast of Texas. In his memoir, Relaciones, de Vaca wrote that his captors took them group to a place called the “river of nuts,” which is today known as the Guadalupe River. For two months out of each year of their captivity, food was scarce. During that time, de Vaca observed the Native Americans surviving on a diet of mostly pecans. De Vaca was released in 1535; only he and three others from his group survived.
Hernando de Soto encountered the pecan around 1541 while leading his expedition up the Mississippi. He mistakenly referred to them as walnuts, but observed Native Americans storing them for the winter.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the early settlers of French Louisiana began to learn about pecans from Native Americans and quickly incorporated the nut into their culture and cuisine.
In his book, Pecan Culture, Fred Brison credits Jean Penicaut, a ship carpenter who escaped the 1729 Natchez Massacre – a Natchez Indian uprising against French settlers – as the first settler to reference the name “pecan.” He observed that the Indians had three kinds walnut trees. He described the first as having nuts as big as a fist, and this was likely black walnut. He described the second as having nuts scarcely bigger than a thumb and called them “pecanes.” Penicaut did not provide details about the third nut. Many believe that the word pecan comes from the Algonquin word “paccan,” which means a hard nut that must be cracked with a stone.
The pecan and Native Americans share a long, rich history. To honor this, the USDA names almost all of their new cultivars after tribe names: ‘Sioux,’ ‘Choctaw,’ ‘Kiowa’ and ‘Caddo’ are just a few.
The Native Range and Pecan Industry
The pecan is native to much of the Mississippi River Valley. Its range extends from Illinois-Iowa border down to Mississippi-Louisiana border. To the west, it can be found in parts of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. To the east, it can be found in Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Pecans are grown throughout the southern U.S., yet is still may be surprising to some that the largest pecan-producing state, Georgia, is not within the pecan’s native range. Neither is Alabama, which grows a lot of pecans and is known for its pecan pie.
Equally fascinating is the fact that some of the largest orchards and most production farms are located near El Paso, Texas, or out in New Mexico and Arizona.
The most widely planted variety of all time, ‘Stuart’ originated in Ocean Springs, Miss., as did ‘Desirable,’ ‘Success’ and ‘Schley.’ Despite repeated knocks from some because of irregular crops and insects, the pecan is a survivor and is worthy when used in the landscape as a shade tree. Many a gardener has eaten watermelon on a hot summer day sitting under the old pecan tree.
The U.S. crop this year appears to be around 320 million pounds though the high rainfall and accompanying disease pressure may turn this downward some. Regardless the crop should be ample for the tasty pecan pies, pecan sweet potatoes, and fruit salads.
Harvesting Pecans at Home
Whether you have a small grove or just a tree in the landscape, taking care of those nuts once they hit the ground is important. The quality of the fallen fruit won’t improve, so protecting the nuts that are produced is important.
Pecans last a long time, particularly when frozen. They can hold their freshness for up to two years. You should store them in airtight containers in the freezer. This will prevent them from absorbing other food odors. They can be stored shelled or with shells.
Nuts in the shell will retain top quality longer than shelled pecans. Large pecan pieces or halves store longer than tiny pieces. Thaw the pecans before using. If you keep them cold, your pecans will last for weeks after thawing. You can even refreeze them once or twice if you have kept them cold.
Selecting For Use
If you are not growing any pecans, here are some tips on buying. To select nuts in the shell that are of the highest quality, choose nuts that are clean, free of splits, cracks, stains, or holes. The kernel should not rattle in the shell.
When selecting shelled pecans look for plump nutmeats that are fairly uniform in color and size. The best pecans have a golden brown color. When roasted they are great for snacks at football games or during the holidays.
If all this talk of pecans has you wanting to plant one or two, you are just a few months away from the best planting time.
This stately native pecan along a riverbank stands like a sentry over the young orchard in the background.
Planting a Pecan Tree
Most pecan trees show up at your garden center or nursery after Christmas. They have been field dug and are bare root. Getting a bare root pecan to grow is relatively easy.
Before planting, prune off all broken or bruised roots with a sharp pair of pruning shears. The first real key is to cut the top of the tree by 50 percent. This is so hard for some people to do because they are under the belief they will have a larger tree quicker.
The fact is there are not enough roots to support all the growth that will emerge from your bare root tree. It will most likely die if you do not cut it back.
It is equally important is to dig the hole just wide and deep enough for the root system and prevent bending the roots. But plant the tree at the same depth it grew in the nursery. Planting too deep often causes the young tree to suffocate and eventually die.
The tree is going to have to grow roots and live in the native soil where it is planted so backfill the hole with the soil that was removed from the planting hole. Leave a small berm or basin to fill with water during the growing season.
From treetops to your tabletops...
If you want to dazzle your guests this holiday season, try these recipes.
Jalapeno Pecan Cheese
3 ounces cream cheese (room temperature)
2 minced fresh jalapenos
3 ounces bleu cheese (room temperature)
1-1/4 cups toasted chopped pecans
1 pint sour cream
1 two-ounce jar of pimentos, chopped and drained
2-1/2 Teaspoons unflavored gelatin dissolved in 1/4 cup water, then heated
1/2 Teaspoon of salt
2 Tablespoons vinegar
Mix cheese until smooth with sour cream. Add gelatin that has been softened in 1/4 cup of water and heated to dissolve. Add vinegar, let stand until slightly thickened. Add jalapenos, pecans, pimento pieces and salt. Pour into mold and chill. Turn out on leaf lettuce and garnish. Serve with crackers.
Simply Superb Pecan Pie
3 eggs, beaten
6 tablespoons melted butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
1 cup pecans, pieces or halves
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
1 unbaked nine-inch pie crust
1 Teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 F. Beat eggs thoroughly with sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, and melted butter or margarine. Add pecans. Pour into unbaked 9-inch pie shell. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until knife inserted halfway between outside and center comes out clean.
Pecan Spinach Dip
10 ounces chopped spinach, cooked and well drained
2 tablespoons sherry
2 tablespoons milk
8 ounce package cream cheese
2 Tablespoons dill weed
1 cup sour cream
3 Tablespoons green onions, finely chopped
One 2.5- ounce jar dried beef, shredded
After spinach is cooked and well drained place in towel and squeeze dry. Set spinach aside. In medium size mixing bowl soften cream cheese. When creamy stir in sour cream. Add dried beef that has been rinsed in warm water and drained. When well blended add remaining ingredients. This dip may be served hot or cold.
2 cups sugar
2 cups whipping cream
2 cups white corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 pound sweet cream butter
7 cups chopped pecans
Over medium low heat cook together sugar and white corn syrup. Cook until candy thermometer reaches 250 F. Remove from heat and add butter. Stir until dissolved. Add whipping cream (not whipped) slowly. Return to heat and cook until thermometer reaches 242 F, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add vanilla and pecans. Drop on foil. When cool, wrap in saran wrap.
Texas Pecan Country Chicken
4 whole chicken breasts, 6 ounces each, boned and skinned
1 Tablespoon French style mustard
1 Tablespoon snipped fresh thyme
3/4 Teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 Teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1-1/2 cups finely diced pecans
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, chopped
1 cup fine bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons butter
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
On hard surface, with meat mallet, pound chicken to one-quarter inch thickness. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Saute mushrooms and onion in butter. Cool. Mix with cream cheese, mustard and thyme. Divide into 4 equal portions and spread on each piece of chicken. Fold over ends and toll up, pressing edges to seal. Mix pecans, breadcrumbs and parsley in a bowl. Dip chicken into butter then into crumbs, turning to coat. Place on greased baking sheet seam side down. Bake at 350 F for 35 minutes or until done. Makes 4 servings. Serve with rice.
From Oklahoma Gardener Issue I Volume IX. Photos courtesy of Norman Winter.