Dietribes: Pecans


• The history of pecans can be traced back to the 16th century. One of the few Dietribes subjects to actually grow as a native plant in North America, it is considered one of our most valuable nut species. My home state of Georgia, though often known primarily as the Peach State, is actually the nation's largest supplier of pecans.

• The name "pecan" is a Native American word of Algonquin origin that describes "nuts requiring a stone to crack." But how did they prononuce it? We may not know how it was meant to be said, but we do have linguistic data on how it is pronounced now. Reading this I've confused myself, but I'm pretty sure I'm normally in the pedestrian "pik Ahn" camp. What about you guys?
• Anyone who has been lucky enough to drive or stroll in or around pecan groves will know it is a beautiful site to behold. The trees are large with broad branches, and are in fact the largest of all the trees in the hickory family. Pecan trees flower from March to May with male and female flowers on the same tree, though they are alternative bearing trees (as in one year it may have a very high production of nuts, and the next a very low count), a consternation to farmers since the 16th century.

• Shelled pecans have a short shelf life unless they are sealed and placed in the refrigerator or freezer (where they can last for a shockingly long time). And since almost everyone buys shelled peanuts because who, honestly, wants to deal with those difficult, bitter and painful (if you accidentally get some in your mouth!) shells, what becomes of them? Some are used as ground cover along roadways and in gardens, but most end up in landfills. However, researchers from New Mexico State University have found a new use for them - an activated carbon filter.

• Pecans are good for many things - producing necessary zinc within the body (for testosterone production!), providing a good source of fiber and a myriad of vitamins and minerals, are rich in oleic acid (believed to help prevent heart disease), and good for making Olympic torches.

• Their trees also make do as gravestones. In 1906, Texas Governor James Hogg requested a pecan tree be planted at the head of his grave instead of a headstone. Such lore lead to the naming of the pecan tree the state tree of Texas (quick! What's your state's tree?) in 1919. Besides Georgia and Texas, other states also celebrate the pecan in all its glory - take Missouri for example. In the town of Brunswick you can behold the Giant Pecan as well as the murderous hammer who pursues it through space and time!

• And now, of course: the pie! Attempts to trace the origin of pecan pie have, sadly, never been conclusive. It is related to semi-sweet cheesecakes popular in 18th-century England, which also spawned chess pie and treacle tarts. Though the first printed version of the pie recipe did not appear until the 1930s, it didn't take long for it to take off. Everything from "The Joy of Cooking" to the Fannie Farmer cookbooks featured what has since remained a classic dessert dish.

• I actually have an ancestral link to pecans - my great-grandfather had pecan groves in Jupiter, Florida (that were eventually wiped out … though I can't remember exactly how!) In any case, I love pecans in any and all ways, although my favorite has to be roasted (yes, even above pecan pie!). What about you Flossers? Do any of you happen to have a tree growing in your yard?

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‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.