The nut that nourished the Indians, rescued Cabeza de Vaca, and gives its all to make Texas’ best pies.
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Along about May the nuts begin to form, in close-growing clusters at the tips of stubby twigs. Inside each green husk is a droplet of nutrient-filled liquid—the substance that will eventually become a pecan. As the kernel takes on shape and size, a papery skin develops around the jellylike matter. It is clear and tasteless now, but if you cut into the nut, the tannin in the juices will stain your fingers brown. By September or October, when the sere husk has split, squirrels and blue jays are attacking in waves. On Saturday mornings children and elderly gents search out the nuts amid drifts of crackling leaves and lug the treasures home, there to be put to their highest and best use in the golden-amber transubstantiation of sugar, syrup, eggs, butter, and vanilla that is Texas pecan pie.
Pecans have grown in Texas since prehistoric times. Indians gratefully ate them and also gave them their name, an Algonquian word meaning a nut that it takes a stone to crack. A member of the family that includes walnuts and hickories, the pecan grows natively only in the south central and southeastern United Staes and in northern Mexico, in rich river-bottom soil where its ample roots spread out to cover twice the area of its branches and go down as far as 40 feet. It reaches its greatest diameter (6 feet) and height (130 feet) in Texas, which makes Texas the best place in the world to raise pecans.
Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to walk across Texas, was also the first to enjoy Texas pecans. Had it not been for the protein-rich nuts, in fact, he would never have made it through the murderous winter of 1532. A few hundred years later, fur traders running their beaver traps along Southern streams gathered up pecans and carted them over the mountains to civilization, where they became known as Mississippi nuts and Illinois nuts. Gentlemen farmers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were among the many who planted these curiosities in their yards.
Ironically, the abundance of the tree almost led to its extinction in the early part of this century. Texas settlers looked around them and saw, on the banks of almost every river and stream, pecan groves that seemed to stretch into infinity. Without compunction they chopped the trees down to grow cotton and turned the fine, hard timber into ax handles, wagon parts, and firewood. Some lordly specimens were felled, golden-egg fashion, just to make it easy for boys to swarm through the branches and plunder the nuts. By 1900 the pecan was in serious trouble. Yet even while this depredation was occurring, pioneer growers like F. A. Swinden and J. H. Burkett were planting groves and experimenting with new varieties.
Some of the credit for the turnaround in the status of the pecan must also go to Texas governor James S. Hogg, a sentimentalist who said that when he died he wanted no monument of stone, but instead, “Let my children plant at the head of my grave a pecan tree and at my feet an old-fashioned wlanut tree. And when these trees shall bear, let the pecans and walnuts be given out among the plain people of Texas so they may plant them and make Texas a land of trees.” In 1919, thanks to Hogg, the pecan was named the state tree.
Today the pecan is thriving. In 1981 the Texas harvest was 62 million pounds (almost a fifth of the national total) and had a value of $42 million. And though the industry is clearly going in the direction of scientifically managed groves that produce big, voluptuous pecans, for now the bulk of the stateís output still comes from great trees like the ones that were here when our forefathers rattled up in mule-drawn wagons 150 years ago. And this is as it should be. The abiding affection people have for the pecan did not develop from contemplating tidy rows of grafted trees. It came, rather, from walking in the deep shade of a grove of centenarians, staring up at their leaves, idly picking up their autumn bounty. These old giants have lived through a lot, and the feisty native pecans they produce embody the wisdom of their struggle.