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Pecans --The True Blue-Blooded Americans

Pecans at a Glance
History Uses Name Origin Folklore/Oddities Medical Benefits
Growing Nutrition Purchasing Preparation Recipe

The quiet little pecan, delicately sweet and so rich tasting, is as American as, well, pecan pie! There's no doubt about it--the pecan tree, which is a kinsman of the hickory and walnut family, was growing wild in the United States long before any newcomers arrived here. Because the flavorful, convoluted nut doesn't grow naturally in any other part of the world, one would think the United States had an exclusive contract with Mother Nature and the wild pecan.

The pecan, because of its pure American heritage, is honored by having the month of April declared as National Pecan Month. Because of its popularity in Texas, the pecan became the state's official tree in 1919 by an act of the Texas Legislature.

Though pecan trees grow mostly throughout the Southeastern United States today, their birthplace is thought to be the central southern portion of the country from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic coast and as far north as Iowa and even New York. While some historians describe the region surrounding the Mississippi River Basin as the homeland of the pecan, others claim the state of Texas is their place of origin.

Texas may, indeed, be where the pecan laid its first claim in the U.S., considering that there are over 70 million wild pecan trees in Texas, and that Texans have been consuming voluminous quantities of pecans since the state was inhabited.

The hickory tree, which is in the pecan family, was growing wild in North America when the first humans crossed the Bering Strait from Asia before 8,000 BCE. Those first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers and collected the nuts in autumn for winter sustenance along with walnuts and a variety of berries.

Native Americans learned how to use the fruits of the earth for their subsistence and relied on pecans as an important food staple. The early colonists learned survival lessons from the Indians who shared their knowledge and taught the early settlers how to gather and utilize the nuts for sustenance throughout the harsh winters.

In addition to his political contributions to the country, Thomas Jefferson, was an avid gardener. He contributed much to U.S. historical botany from his practice of gathering and saving heirloom seeds as well as unique food plants that were brought here by explorers.

In one of his horticultural endeavors, Thomas Jefferson transplanted some pecan trees from the Mississippi Valley to his home in Monticello. At that time he presented some of the trees to George Washington who planted them on March 25, 1775 at his Mount Vernon home. Washington referred to pecans as "Mississippi nuts." Three of those original trees still thrive on the property at Mount Vernon. The pecan was a favorite nut of both presidents, who frequently snacked on handfuls of them. In fact, George Washington was said to carry pecans in his pocket frequently.

Pecan Commercial cultivation of pecans began in the early 1800's but didn't become a major business until the late 1800's when Gustav Duerler embarked on his pecan candy business in San Antonio, Texas. Commercial pecan growers were in such short supply, Duerler contracted with Native Americans to supply him with sufficient quantities of the nuts. He received them wrapped in deerskins. Shelling the nuts was as important to his business as the making of the candy. Lacking our modern factory machinery, he used a railroad spike to crack the nuts and a sack needle to separate the meat from the shells.

According to the National Pecan Shellers Association, Long Island, New York, holds the distinction of being first to cultivate pecans in 1772. However, in the mid 1800's a Louisiana slave named Antoine developed a method of grafting pecan scions to pecan plant stock, a method called top-working, that improved on the quality of the wild pecan and increased the tree's productivity. Antoine was noted for developing the variety called "Centennial" at the Oak Alley Plantation. Now there are about 500 varieties of cultivated pecan trees that originated from his "Centennial."

While many very old original pecan trees still produce nuts that are gathered and marketed, today most commercial pecans come from cultivated trees. Pecans from the cultivated trees have a thinner shell that is much easier to crack than the wild pecans, making them more marketable. The cultivated trees are also more reliable fruit bearers than their wild cousins that bear erratically.

Though pecans are popular in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, they have never achieved world notice. Pecans had not reached Europe until the 1700's and were shown little enthusiasm. Today, they are grown on a small scale in Israel, New South Wales in Australia, and Natal in South Africa. Australia began harvesting its first good crop in 1960, while Israel's harvesting began in the 1970's. Still, the pecan digs its roots deeply into its North American home without much of the wanderlust experienced by other Native American food plants such as the tomato, today a cherished global favorite.

Pecans rank second in popularity among nuts in the U.S. with the number one spot devoted to peanuts. Presently, pecans are grown from the Atlantic to the Pacific in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, California, Georgia, Arizona, Arkansas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Louisiana. The United States produces more than 350 million pounds annually, about 80 percent of the pecans grown worldwide.

Many people believe hickory nuts and pecans are the same and mistakenly use their names interchangeably; however, there is a clear distinction between them. Hickories are part of the Carya family that includes pecans and walnuts but are seldom cultivated. Though all hickory trees bear nuts, not all of them are edible. Of those that are, only a few varieties are flavorful, but their tough shells are challenging to crack, and there is a limited demand for them.

Pecan The Carya laciniosa also called shellbark hickory is cultivated on a small scale. The trees produce a sweet nut and are grown from Iowa to New York and in Tennessee and Oklahoma.

Another hickory variety with a thinner shell, called the Carya ovata or shagbark hickory, produces sweet, edible hickory nuts. This variety grows from Quebec to Minnesota and from Florida to Texas.

Pecan Cuisine
Frederic Rosengarten, Jr. writes in The Book of Edible Nuts published in 1984:

"A creamy liquid called powcohicora or 'hickory milk' was prepared by the Algonquins; paccan kernels were pounded into small pieces, cast into boiling water, strained and stirred. This rich, nutty concoction was added to broth to thicken it, and to corn cakes and hominy as a seasoning."

The Native American Indians made pecan milk by pounding the nuts with a mortar and pestle before adding water and stirring them into a nourishing beverage. Pecan milk was an ideal energy food for their infants as well as the elders because it was so easy to digest.

In Pre-Columbian times Native Americans gathered wild pecans and combined them with fruits. Frequently they would add the nuts to vegetable dishes that included beans, corn, and squashes. To thicken meat stews, pecans were ground into a fine meal and added at the end of the cooking. In preparation of the hunt, the Indians included roasted pecans as part of their travel supplies that sustained them when foods along the journey were scarce. The high fat content of pecans provided them with a nourishing source of energy as well.

Of the many favorite American dishes inspired by the pecan, none surpasses the beloved pecan pie with its rich, dark, custard-like filling and heavily encrusted, crunchy pecan topping. Exactly where the pie originated is a mystery, but some suggest the wife of a Karo Corn Syrup executive may have developed the pie more than 70 years ago in an effort to create recipes to help sell the product.

Other historians presume the pecan pie originated in the backwoods of Georgia or Alabama where even the poorest of families had the pie's basic ingredients of corn syrup and pecans in their pantries.

In addition to holding dear the classic pecan pie recipe, inventive chefs have done their best to create the ultimate pecan pie with the additions like chocolate, molasses, bourbon, sweet potato, cinnamon apples, vanilla, maple syrup, and even a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the top.

Other pecan favorites that come from the southern regions of the U.S. include pralines, sticky buns, candied pecans, fruitcake, pecan tarts, sweet potatoes or grits with pecans, and pecan stuffing for meat dishes. Not to be overlooked is butter pecan ice cream, a favorite treat that Texas is proud to claim as its own.

Euell Gibbons, an American Naturalist who enjoyed gathering wild foods, mentions maple nut divinity made with hickory nuts and pecan pralines as well as praline sauce in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

Other Uses of the Pecan
Hickory wood is considered valuable timber and is used as hardwood for building, making logs, plywood, veneer, fine furniture, walking sticks, and even drum sticks. Hickory chips are popular for infusing a smoky flavor into grilled foods, adding a pleasant aroma as well. Pecan

Pecan shells are utilitarian in many diverse ways--they are finely ground to create an abrasive material used for cleaning chemical and refinery equipment. This abrasive material is also used in other industries to polish soft metals, wood, plastics, fiberglass, stones, gun casings, and jewelry. Ground pecan shells are also employed to filter metals from water.

Pecan oil is uncommon in food use because it is seldom sold in grocery stores. However, there are spice companies that produce an undiluted flavoring oil from the pecan that concentrates the aroma and taste of the pecan that can be used to enhance the flavor of foods such as pecan pie.

Pecan oil is also sold as a pleasant, lightweight massage oil for its ability to sooth and soften dry skin. Some companies incorporate the oil into soap bars.

Naming the Pecan
The pecan's scientific name, Carya illinoinensis, is somewhat confusing to historians and is possibly a misnomer because pecan trees did not naturally grow in Illinois. Some have speculated that a southerner brought a pecan cultivar northward where it was discovered in the Illinois region by French missionaries or possibly fur traders. Scientific names are often attributed to the locale where they were discovered.

The pecan's name comes from the Algonquin Indians who called it paccan or pakan meaning "all nuts requiring a stone to crack." Paccan also referred to all hickory nuts.

The Algonquin Indians, who lived in the northern portions of New York and New England, called the hickory nuts powcohicora, but with the arrival of settlers in the United States, the name evolved to pohickory and eventually hickory.

The scientific name for the nuts was originally Hicoria pecan but was changed to Carya illinoinensis during the late seventeen hundreds. Fur traders traveling from Illinois to the Atlantic coast brought pecans with them and referred to them as Illinois nuts.

Folklore and Oddities
The Native American Indians recognized that pecans were ideal trading commodities. As they journeyed and camped along their trading routes, they planted pecan trees to assure that they and their progeny would have a steady supply of the precious nuts for trading. When the trees began to bear fruit, the Indians would plan their routes to take advantage of the harvest. Their precious pecans paid for goods such as hides and mats from the first Spaniards in Florida.

Some North American Indians likened the pecan tree to the Great Spirit. The nuts were so valued by the Texas Mariame Indian tribe they actually ate them as their only sustenance for two months of the year. Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer whose given name was Alvar Nunez, was shipwrecked in 1528 and held captive by the Indians for six years. In his account he wrote that the pecan "is the subsistence of the people for two months of the year without any other thing."

Annual pecan festivals throughout the South and Southwest from Louisiana to New Mexico celebrate the pecan in unique ways. The Historic Richmond Business Association sponsors a pecan festival in Richmond, Texas, every October and holds a pecan bake-off with the stipulation that each recipe must include at least one cup of pecans.

The Red River Farm Trail in Charlie, Texas, holds its pecan festival in November and draws record crowds for its pecan baking contest, pecan relay races, pecan shelling contest, and even a pecan guessing contest.

The 11th Annual Pecan Festival of Cuchillo, New Mexico sold 333 pecan pies in 2003 and planned to bake more than 400 pies in 2004. Highlights of the festival were the great pecan pie give-away drawings held throughout the day.

Many Texans believe their native pecan trees produce a tastier nut than the cultivated varieties. During the fall season when the nuts mature, the wild pecans in areas of East, North, and Central Texas are offered for free to anyone who will pick them.

Medicinal Benefits
Medical researchers give pecans the thumbs-up for their ability to lower cholesterol when small amounts are included in the diet on a regular basis. Scientists exploring the beneficial properties of pecans discovered they are a concentrated source of plant sterols known to lower cholesterol.

In addition, pecans contain phytochemicals that offer antioxidant protection from many diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Because pecans contain mostly monounsaturated fatty acids, they are touted by the American Heart Association that advises Americans to"substitute grains and unsaturated fatty acids from fish, vegetables, legumes and nuts" and limit their intake of saturated fats.

Pecans are sodium-free and contain more than19 different vitamins and minerals, making them an ideal nutritious alternative to animal-based foods.

Oleic acid is the main monounsaturated acid in most nuts, including pecans, and is credited with lowering LDL cholesterol while not affecting the HDL. Many studies reveal that a high ratio of monounsaturates to polyunsaturates is helpful in reducing risk of heart disease.

Essential oil from the pecan is used as an inhalant as well as topical oil. Putting 2 or 3 drops on a handkerchief and breathing the oil stimulates the body to make antibodies, endorphins, and neurotransmitters that help build a strong immune system. Benefits can also be derived from putting the oil into the bathtub, a diffuser, or even a footbath.

Pecans are high in zinc, a mineral that helps the body to generate testosterone. Both men and women benefit from good levels of testosterone, a hormone responsible for sparking sexual desire.

Pecans belong to the botanical genus Carya pecan also C. illinoinensis, that includes the hickory tree and the walnut tree in its family. All three belong to the Juglandaceae classification with the pecan considered the largest of the three.

Pecan trees like cool winters and sustained high summer temperatures. The trees will adapt to a variety of soils but prefer well-drained loam with friable subsoil.

Remarkably long lived, the pecan can survive more than a thousand years and is capable of reaching heights more than 100 feet (50 meters). The pecan does not begin producing fruit immediately. Growers must wait about 10 years for the tree to produce a sufficient crop for commercial production. In a fruitful year, one pecan tree can bear more than 400 pounds (181.4 kg) of nuts.

Pecan A commercial pecan orchard requires a considerable area of land. Although the tree has a diameter of only about 8 feet, the roots extend double that distance, making it necessary to plant the trees no closer than 80 feet apart in order for the trees to receive sufficient water and nourishment. The leaves are opposing, elongated, about 4 to 7 inches (10 to 18 cm) in length, and come to a sharp point at the tip.

The pecan is classified as a drupe, meaning that it has an inner fleshy portion covered by a skin-like outer layer called the husk and an edible kernel inside. The drupe grows about 1 3/4 inches to 3 1/2 inches (4 to 9 cm) long. At maturity the kernel splits into 4 edible lobes that closely resemble the walnut. Its hard shell has a smooth surface with color ranging from a rich medium brown to a reddish blush.

The pecan tree is difficult to grow from seed. Commercial orchards are cultivated from trees that have been budded onto rootstock, a laborious process considered a horticultural specialty. Grafted trees will bear 3 or 4 years after planting, producing fruits that grow in clusters of 2 to 8 nuts.

Pecan trees have both male and female blossoms on one tree, each sex producing a distinctly different flower from the other. The male flower is recognized by its three-branched pendulous catkins (a drooping spike resembling a cat's tail.) Flowers grow from the last season's wood. The two to ten flowered spikes that grow on the terminal of the current season's growth distinguish the female blossoms.

While native pecans and hickory nuts are renowned for their tough, difficult to crack shells, today pecans are cultivated to have thin, easily crackable shells.

Pecan aficionados may at some time encounter a Hiccan, a hybrid of a hickory and a pecan. Commercial growers have cultivated two varieties, the Burlington and the Bixby; however, neither bear large quantities of nuts, and demand for them is small.

Harvesting of pecans takes place in the fall when the fully ripened husks open and the nuts fall to the ground where they must be gathered frequently to prevent spoilage. Not all the nuts fall to the ground predictably. Those that still cling to the tree require a little encouragement. Shaking the tree will usually loosen them enough to fall to the ground.

Before the pecans are brought to market, they must be dried in a shady, well-ventilated area for about two to three weeks.

Although the pecan is kinfolk to the walnut, and the nut kernel itself bears a distinct resemblance to the walnut, its flavor is much milder and sweeter and lacks the bitter bite characteristic of the walnut.

Also differing from the walnut is the pecan's oilier composition, containing about 70% monounsaturated fat (oleic acid). The fat composition of pecans includes several oils (gama tocopherol, alpha tocopherol, and delta tocopherol) but mostly linoleic and oleic fatty acids which are monounsaturated fats. Good quality pecans contain 73% to 75% oil.

With its nearly 18% protein content, the pecan is listed on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid as part of the protein group as a healthful alternative for people on a plant-based diet.

One Ounce of Raw Pecans:
A good source of protein, yet not excessive, pecans contain 2 grams. With dietary fiber essential to good health, count on pecans to deliver 3 grams.

The total fat content is 20.4 grams, mostly monounsaturated, with only 1.8 grams saturated fat. While this small quantity of pecans (approximately 20 halves) contains 196 calories, studies reveal that frequent consumption, several times a week, does not cause weight gain. In some cases, study participants have even shown a small weight loss.

Plant sterols are highly touted today for their ability to lower cholesterol. Pecans contain about 40 mg of plant sterols.

Pecans offer B vitamins with 0.29 mg of thiamine, 0.04 mg of riboflavin, 0.33 mg of niacin, 0.06 mg of B6, and 6.2 mcg of folic acid. While calcium is not considered high in pecans, it does register 19.8 mg, which adds up when combined with other calcium containing foods eaten throughout the day.

Hard-to-get zinc and iron offer 1.3 mg and 0.7 mg respectively. Pecans are a good source of potassium with 116 mg and magnesium at 34.3 mg.

An ideal healthfood for the low carb disciples, pecans have only 4 grams of carbohydrates.

Overall, pecans contain 70% monounsaturated fats, 12 to 15% carbohydrates, 9 to 10% protein, 3 to 4% water, and 1.5% minerals.

Purchasing and Storing
The freshest pecans are available in autumn, just after they have been harvested. They are moist and bursting with sweetness. In the fall the supermarkets usually feature bins of nuts in the shell that are sold by the pound. For convenience, purchase them already shelled.

Look for pecans that are plump and crisp, indicating they contain a high content of oil. Those that are shriveled and dry or hollow contain less oil and have not been properly stored.

Because of their high oil content, pecans can become rancid in warm temperatures. Shelled, they can be kept at 70 F for up to three months but are best kept refrigerated in glass jars. Pecans in the shell can keep at room temperature for up to four months but should be refrigerated for longer storage.

For storage of one year or longer, whether shelled or in shell, they are best kept frozen. Thaw them slowly. Transfer them to the refrigerator first, then bring them to room temperature to avoid condensation on the kernels. Frozen, pecans shelled or in the shell can keep for two to four years.

Linoleic acid is the component of pecans that becomes rancid when stored at high humidity, causing molding and deterioration of the texture. When humidity is too low, the pecans will become dry quickly.

Pecans are one of the most versatile foods vegetarians can enjoy. The nuts can be eaten fresh without any preparation at all just by cracking them with a simple, old-fashioned nutcracker.

Pecans can be ground, grated, shredded, pureed, and diced. Added to any dish, pecans are a nutritional and gastronomic enhancement. They can be added to soups, salads, appetizers, main dishes, grain and legume dishes, and even desserts.

When preparing foods containing a considerable quantity of nuts, take advantage of the convenience of already shelled nuts

Pecan For some old-fashioned pleasure, purchase a pound of pecans in the shell along with a few nutcrackers. Gather around the table, and serve the nuts as a dessert along with fresh fruit. People become friendly quickly, exchanging jokes and enjoying stimulating conversation. Be sure to provide a bowl for the shells.

Pecans make a great garnish.

Include them in a salad for pleasant texture and great taste.

Using the blender, blend a handful of pecans into a salad dressing as a thickener.

For a great energy boost, include pecans in a smoothie along with fruit and juices.

Prepare a pecan milk by blending raw pecans and water into a creamy nutmilk. Pour through a fine strainer to remove any pieces.

To toast pecans, put 1 cup (240 ml) into a non-stick skillet. Toss them over high heat constantly for about 1 to 2 minutes. Stirring is important to prevent burning. Immediately transfer them to a dish to cool. Store them in a cool, dry place.

To roast: Put larger quantities of pecans on a baking pan and roast in the oven at 350 F (Gas Mark 4) for 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to another pan to cool.

Make pecan milk from toasted nuts. Combine with water in a saucepan, and boil 1 or 2 minutes. Allow it to rest a few hours to develop flavor. Then blend and strain.

A truly spectacular salad, this dynamic combination offers a dramatic burst of color along with pungent savory flavors tastefully balanced with sweet accents. The success of this salad relies on advance preparation of the balsamic vinegar reduction, the carmelized pecans, and the marinated tofu. If these items are prepared a day ahead, the salad can be assembled quickly.

26 Pecan Salad


    4 T. balsamic vinegar reduction

    2 T. maple syrup
    24 raw pecan halves, or 1/2 C. (120 ml)

    1/4 C. (60 ml) Bragg Liquid Aminos or soy sauce
    1 T. umeboshi plum vinegar or red wine vinegar
    1/2 lb. (225 g) firm or extra firm tofu

    4 leaves frilly kale, finely shredded
    1/2 head Boston lettuce, torn
    1 red bell pepper cut into 1-inch long thin julienne
    1/2 yellow or orange bell pepper cut into 1-inch long thin julienne
    12 snap peas or snow peas trimmed, cut in half lengthwise
    1 apple, cored and chopped
    5 radishes, sliced
    1/2 C. (120 ml) currants or black raisins

    3 T. extra virgin olive oil

Balsamic Vinegar Reduction
Measure 1/2-cup (120 ml) balsamic vinegar, and pour it into a small saucepan or a butter melter pot. Simmer uncovered over medium-high heat for about 12 to 15 minutes until reduced by half, to about 4 tablespoons. The vinegar will become slightly thickened. Cool and store in the refrigerator.

Carmelizing Pecans
Put the maple syrup into an 8 to 10-inch (20 to 25-cm) non-stick skillet and bring to a boil over high heat. When the syrup begins to bubble, add pecans and toss with a wooden spoon to coat completely. Stir for 1 to 2 minutes until all liquid is absorbed. Turn off heat, and immediately pour coated pecans onto a dish to cool. When cool, break apart the nuts that have stuck together. Set aside.

Marinating Tofu
Create a marinade by combining Bragg Liquid Aminos and the umeboshi vinegar in a plastic storage container. Crumble the tofu into the marinade, and stir to coat evenly. Cover container, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight, tossing occasionally.

Assembling the Salad
Combine the salad ingredients in a large bowl and toss with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle crumbled tofu over the top. Drizzle balsamic vinegar reduction over the tofu. Top with carmelized pecans and serve. Makes 4 to 5 servings.

NOTE: For individual servings, spoon the oil-dressed salad ingredients onto individual salad plates. Top each with the marinated tofu crumbles. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar reduction, and garnish with the carmelized pecans.

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