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Pecans: Manna from the Southern Heavens

Michael DeWitt
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Wellington Daily News

Some things are just typically Southern, like grits, sweet iced tea and pecans. But while the official nut of the South is especially popular during the winter holidays, it’s not really a nut at all.

The pecan tree, a native of the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, can be grown in other temperate regions of the world, but in the deep South the tree and its fruit have an almost cult-like following. The seeds of the pecan have a rich, buttery flavor that makes any dish better.

“Pecans in the South are like manna from Heaven,” says Monikue Cooper, a South Carolina Lowcountry grandmother who sells her locally famous pecan pies but won’t share the recipe. “God drops the blessings at our feet and all we have to do is pick them up.”

Cooper’s friend, Amanda Trent, a native Virginian now living in Hampton, South Carolina, loves pecan-crusted chicken and waffles, while Pat Hawkins, an Alabama native residing in Estill, S.C., hasn’t met a pecan dish she didn’t like.

“I love them anyway you can fix them - butter pecan ice cream, pecan brittle, pecan pie, pecan rolls, pecan pancake with syrup or just eating them plain.”

The pecan tree, or Carya illinoinensis, is a species of hickory that can grow up to 140 feet tall and produces an edible nut that is popular as both a snack and an ingredient in many desserts and holiday dishes, from cakes to pecan pie and even praline candy. But the “nut” isn’t technically a nut, it is actually a drupe, a fruit with a single stone or pit that is surrounded by a husk (like peaches and plums).

Regardless of how you classify them, people are nuts about them, putting them in pies, cookies, cakes, pralines, logs and even hot pecan pepper jelly. Craft beer enthusiasts and whisky makers are even introducing them to the world of spirits and brews.

“In a ‘nutshell,’ pecans have a sweet nutty and buttery crunch - who can resist?” says Michelle Altman, a Rural Health & Nutrition Agent for Clemson University. “Pecans make good foods great. Pecans are like putting a bow on a present: they complete the package. I love to sprinkle pecans on my oatmeal, salads, and yogurt. I even eat them out of their freshly cracked shell.”

While many folks agree on the taste, there are two ways to pronounce pecan and even folks in the same region of the South will often disagree on that issue.

“I’ve always been a ‘pee can’ girl since I have lived in the South all my life, but I was mystified when I met a person from Alabama who called them ‘peh cahns.’” added Altman.

“Regardless of the pronunciation, pecans are known to be a mighty nut in the health world. Everyone should know the nutritional superpowers of a pecan. The American Heart Association has designated the pecan as a heart healthy food when enjoyed with a balanced diet. Pecans are known to have ‘good fats,’ fiber, and protein. But too much of a good thing comes with caution. One ounce of pecans (19 pecan halves) has 196 calories.”

Prior to European settlement, pecans were widely consumed and even traded by Native Americans. The Spanish introduced the pecan to Europe and Asia, and today pecans are exported globally by the U.S. and Mexico, the world’s largest producers. As of 2014, the U.S. produced about 264.2 million pounds of pecans, with 75% of that crop coming from Texas, Georgia and New Mexico.

The pecan is so important culturally and economically that in 1919 it was declared the State Tree of Texas, and in 2013 pecan pie became the state’s official pie. San Saba, Texas, claims to be “The Pecan Capital of the World” and home to the “Mother Tree,” which reportedly dates back to 1850. Alabama, Arkansas and California are among the states who later adopted the pecan as their official state nut.

Many Southern states have their own pecan growers associations, and there is a National Pecan Shellers Association and a U.S. Pecan Growers Council, which are both active leaders in the global pecan industry.

Interesting facts about pecans:

- The word “pecan” comes from an Algonquin word that means “a nut that requires a stone to crack” because of the hard shell.

- Native Americans ate pecans but also made pecan milk for infants and the elderly. They also made a fermented intoxicating pecan beverage called “powcohicora.”

- Pecan trees only produce nuts every two years.

- Pecans were not commercially grown until the 1880s but they were considered a foraged delicacy by colonists.

- Thomas Jefferson planted a pecan tree in his orchard and would gift the other founding fathers pecans. George Washington also had pecan orchards.

- There are over 1,000 varieties of pecans and many are named for Native American Indian tribes (Cheyenne, Mohawk, Sioux, Choctaw and Shawnee).

- It takes 12 years for a pecan tree to reach maturity and begin producing nuts.

- Pecan trees can live for up to 300 years.

- 90% of all pecans are grown in the United States.

- April 14 is National Pecan Day in the United States.

- Astronauts took pecans to the moon during two Apollo space missions.

- Roasted pecan shells were often used as a substitute for coffee during World War II. Today, pecan wood is used in making furniture and wood flooring, as well as a fuel for smoking meats.

- July 12 is National Pecan Pie Day in the United States.

- Okmulgee, Oklahoma holds the world’s records for the largest pecan pie, pecan cookie and pecan brownie.

- Pecan wood was used for the handles of the Olympic Torches in 1996. The torches were carried across a 15,000-mile relay until the flame was lit at the host city Atlanta, Georgia.

- The pecan pie was created by French people who had settled in New Orleans - and about 78 pecans are used in the average pecan pie.

- Albany, Georgia, hosts the National Pecan Festival, which includes a pecan-cooking contest and the crowning of a National Pecan Queen.

Sources: The National Pecan Shellers Association, The Australian Pecan Association, The Little Eva Pecan Company, the American Heart Association.

Michael M. DeWitt Jr. is the managing editor of The Hampton County Guardian newspaper in South Carolina. He is an award-winning humorist, journalist and outdoor writer and the author of two books.

Wellington Daily News