December 1

Pecans: A Tradition Worth Preserving


When I was driving recently through rural Georgia, I began to pass rows and rows of pecan trees. Although we don’t see many today in central North Carolina, I could recognize them because my back yard when I was growing up had one, among other nut and fruit trees.

Pecan trees are majestically tall, sometimes rising higher than 125 feet. With solid trunks and branches spreading outwards up to 75 feet, they are a sight to behold when planted in row after row on a huge swath of rural land.

Because pecans are native to the southern United States as well as Mexico, they have an important role in food traditions that date back generations. A pecan pie has sweetened many a meal and long provided the perfect end for dinners made at home.

Although North Carolina is on the northern fringe of the commercial pecan-producing region of the United States, many families still tell stories of how pecans were an important part of their lives. For example, for the wealthy during colonial times, pecans were a delicacy.

In contrast, the pecan was also a means of survival for other families during lean times and in poorer circumstances. My mother grew up as a sharecropper in an eastern county, and I can only imagine how she and her siblings had to forage for nuts as her family sought to add something healthy to a diet of cornmeal, molasses, and fatback, typical of many sharecropping families.

After she married my dad and they owned a house, she was determined never to live again without having fresh fruits and vegetables-and nuts-in her yard.

Within a few years, she had overpopulated the small back yard with a tree of almost every favorite-pear, peach, apple, plum, damson (a plum subspecies), walnut, cherry, and yes, a pecan.

As the trees grew and crowded each other out, some such as pear, peach, apple, and damson struggled to bear fruit. The two nut trees thrived in their limited spaces, but each year, we lost most of the nuts to squirrels who were quicker to gather than I was. However, we always had enough to make pies after each season without having to resort to “store-bought” nuts.

Many people, some native Southerners and others who are recent arrivals argue seriously about how to pronounce the word “pecan.” Most are unaware that the word was spoken originally by Algonquians, the Native Americans who introduced the nut to others who arrived after crossing the Atlantic Ocean during the colonial period.

The way “pecan” is pronounced is a sign of regional and cultural heritage, not linguistic correctness (unless learned directly from the Algonquians). How we pronounce the word is not as important as remembering that the pecan is part of our food heritage and has been enjoyed for generations.

Now, please pass me a piece of pecan pie and tell me about your tradition.

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