The South’s Favorite Nut

Whether “pee-can” or “puh-con,” it’s actually a fruit — and makes for delicious pies

By Ross Howell Jr.

Squirrels have been foraging in the pecan trees for weeks; come November the crows take a turn. They’ve gathered at dawn in the big trees scattered among neighbors’ yards around the corner from our house. They’re raucous, but they don’t seem especially quarrelsome this morning — though with crows, it’s always hard to tell.

As I turn the corner with my dogs, a sentinel sounds the alarm. None of the other crows seem to pay much mind. Their dark shapes litter the street, sidewalk and tree limbs, as if a UPS truck loaded with black fabric remnants had sped by with its cargo door rolled up.

They squawk and clatter as hulls and shells patter across the asphalt. The dogs lift their ears, curious about the commotion.

A crow picks up a pecan in its beak and flies to the power line over the street. It perches and drops the nut, watching it tumble down, bounce and spin on the pavement. The bird glides down, cocks its head to inspect its work, picks up the pecan and flies back to the line. It drops the nut again. It bounces, not so high this time, and rolls unevenly to a stop. Success. The crow flutters down and pecks at the spoils.

OK, I just called the pecan a “nut,” which it isn’t, really. Technically, it’s a drupe, which is a fruit with a single stone or pit, protected by a husk (sometimes called a “shuck”). The four-sectioned pecan shuck is spongy and green, eventually drying and becoming thinner, turning dark brown, and opening as the drupe matures, exposing a thin shell containing the nut, or more accurately, the seed.

North Carolina’s Piedmont is located on the northernmost and westernmost geographical region where the pecan tree, Carya illinoinensis, thrives. The pecan is a species of hickory native to Mexico and the Southcentral and Southeastern United States. The name “pecan” derives from the Algonquian word describing a nut that requires a stone to crack it.

Native Americans foraged for pecans and traded them between tribes. Spanish explorers in the 16th century were the first Europeans to describe the nut, coming across pecans in what is now Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. Thomas Jefferson grew pecans at his Virginia home, Monticello, and George Washington wrote in his journal that Jefferson had made him a gift of “Illinois nuts,” which he planted at Mount Vernon (Both Jefferson and Washington obviously lacked USDA climactic range maps.)

In the South, the pecan was often planted as a “homestead” tree, its bounty providing a remarkable amount of energy as a food, especially when compared with wild game or other comestibles more arduous to acquire. Deciduous, the pecan can reach the height of 140 feet, with a trunk more than 6 feet in diameter. Trees produce both male flowers (catkins) and female flowers, and have been known to produce edible pecans over a three-century life span. That places the pecan among the longest-lived trees of the Southern forest.

To some it’s the “pee-can” and to others, the “puh-con;” no one in the South seems to agree on the correct pronunciation. What we do agree on is that the tree has given us two of our favorite desserts, pralines and pecan pie.

Uh-oh. Another pronunciation quarrel. “Pray-leens” or “praw-leens”?

On the pronunciation of “pie,” we agree. Although not, of course, with our neighbors to the North.

I’d like a little whipped cream to top mine, please. And if your recipe happens to include chocolate, that’s fine by me.  OH

When Ross Howell Jr. is not thinking about or eating pie, he’s working on a novel, walking his dogs and preparing his garden beds for winter.

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