Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Surprising Facts about the Pecan

Gain a deeper appreciation for classic holiday foods this season with James McWilliams’s newest book, The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut. This excerpt charts the popularization of pecans in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, revealing some really surprising tidbits about this delicious nut. We also have a pecan pie recipe excerpt from Cooking with Texas Highways and a pecan craft activity from 1963. Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!

“In Almost Any Recipe . . .Pecans May Be Used”
American Consumers Embrace the Pecan, 1940–1960

By James McWilliams

Pecans—not unlike corn today—had to be stuffed into all manner of food. Noting how the “pecan drops in price,” food journalist Mary Meade encouraged readers to “employ nuts with a lavish hand.” Her article went on to promote whole-wheat pecan bread, rice pecan loaf, golden pecan pie, and party pecan rolls. “Cheaper nuts,” explained another article, “bring out many tasty recipes,” including “pecan loaf.” A pecan loaf was made with rice, cracker crumbs, milk, salt, butter, eggs, and chopped pecans. Everything was beaten together and baked in a “small loaf pan.” What’s notable about so many of these recipes is the emphasis on the nuts’ being “cheap.”
Amid the dizzying array of pecan-inspired desserts, the American sweet tooth elevated a couple of dishes to something of an iconic status. Pralines would always be deeply associated with New Orleans, where the French started to prepare them as early as the 1720s. They would also be associated with Creole cooking, the flexible culinary style that emerged from that region. The original praline recipes called for almonds or hazelnuts. However, with an abundance of native pecans on hand, French settlers in Louisiana began to substitute “fat Louisiana pecans” for the more traditional nuts. These creolized pralines were sold on the street well into the nineteenth century, and by the twentieth, recipes for them started to appear in best-selling cookbooks. Pralines sold in the United States today typically include pecans, as well as sugar and cream, or evaporated milk. Sometimes vanilla, molasses, caramel, or maple syrup is added. As the pecan-based dessert industry exploded in the 1940s, pralines went along for the ride, with an interesting twist added here and there. A 1947 recipe, for example, used brown sugar, molasses, and vanilla. The author noted that these were the kind of pralines she had recently eaten in New Orleans, where “tourists wandering around the French Quarter buy them and send them out by the dozens to their friends ‘up north.’”
The other iconic dessert to come of age in the 1940s and 1950s was pecan pie, a food as closely associated with southern culinary culture as was the praline with Creole New Orleans. It is commonly asserted that the French invented pecan pie after settling New Orleans. As far as I can tell, there is little evidence to support this claim. What we do know is that the first published pecan pie recipes emerged in the late nineteenth century and that in the 1930s, with the invention of Karo Corn Syrup, the pecan pie became a staple of southern tables around the Thanksgiving holiday, hot on the heels of the pecan harvest. Some say that corn syrup gives the dessert that definitive “ooo-ey goo-ey” consistency; others, deeming corn syrup the essence of culinary corruption, opt for honey or maple syrup. In any case, it is not my intention to determine what is “real” pecan pie or who can lay claim to its origin or whether or not corn syrup is all that evil. What matters for our purposes is that pecan pie was elevated from a regional to a national dish with the convergence of corn syrup and pecan surpluses. Recipes began appearing in standard cookbooks such as The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and Joy of Cooking for the first time in the early 1940s. By the 1950s, virtually every American—north, south, east, or west—had heard of, if not eaten, a dense slice of pecan pie.

What stood out in the 1940s was how widely interpreted pecan pie was. If there had been a conservative version, though, it would have come from Georgia. Specifically, it would have come from the Magnolia Room in Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta. The tearoom served a pecan pie so immensely popular that a baker—an African American woman named Callie Williams—was employed full-time six days a week to do nothing but bake pecan pies. In 1948 she pulled 28,960 pecan pies from her oven. According to the Los Angeles Times, Williams’s “pecan pie formula” was “polished and brought to perfection by a six-days-a-week workout for a quarter of a century.” The west coast writer was evidently moved by Williams’s southern handiwork. “The recipe,” she rhapsodized, “reads like a poem; it eats like a dream.” Callie Williams was known for keeping her coveted recipe close to her chest, but “sometimes she breaks down and tells how she does it.” She evidently used eggs, butter, flour, vanilla, salt, sugar, dark corn syrup, and, of course, pecans. How she arranged these ingredients nobody seemed to know. In any case, the Los Angeles Times, obviously intrigued by the southern flavor of the pecan experience, ended the article by advising, rather bizarrely: “Eat to the strum of banjos.”
Clearly, though, chefs were perfectly comfortable veering away from Miss Callie’s gold standard for pecan pie into a number of innovative directions. In the 1930s, a Miss Kathleen Armentrout won a national pecan pie competition by dressing up the conventional recipe with orange zest and orange juice. “Honey pecan pie” called for ⅓ cup of “strained honey,” while “Texas pecan pie” required “sweet milk.” A Louisiana “yam pecan pie,” designed by Elizabeth Ann Coit, called for cinnamon, ginger, scalded milk, and a cup of mashed sweet potatoes. A “pecan pumpkin pie” called for canned pumpkin, cinnamon, and ginger. Molasses pecan pie substituted “medium dark molasses” for the corn syrup. And so on. Interpretations, again, seemed to be endless, and the cultural reach of the pecan pie went much further than that of the more tradition-bound praline. By 1959, the most popular dessert at the Coach House, a famous Manhattan eatery off Washington Square Park, was pecan pie. In such ways did pecan pie join the praline and hundreds of other pecan desserts to help ensure that pecans were “absorbed on the home front.”
Pecans went into more than desserts. “You wrong a nut,” wrote Jane Holt in 1942, “when you assign it an incidental role in a meal.” Building on this advice, Americans responded to the wartime abundance of pecans by working them into common entrées and salads. Again, the evidence for this trend was most conspicuous in the food sections of the nation’s leading newspapers (food sections being another invention of the 1940s). Mary Meade reminded readers how “just a few chopped pecans may be sautéed in a little margarine or butter to be sprinkled on a green vegetable ready for serving.” She added that “green beans, asparagus, sprouts and peas are attractive this way.” A luncheon recipe published in the Los Angeles Times in 1939 embellished a fresh fruit salad with “butterscotch pecan biscuits,” a recipe that called for adding chopped pecans to “pre-packaged biscuit dough and baking.” Other dishes popularized during this time included “sweet potatoes with pecans” (which mixed pecans with cornflakes), lamb and pecan salad (chilled with gelatin), whole-wheat pecan bread, mashed sweet potatoes with pecans, rice pecan loaf, carrot pecan loaf (with cheese sauce), cauliflower and pecan salad, and plum-orange-pecan soufflé salad. In many ways, these meals were the signature dishes of the postwar American dinner table. Pecans had no trouble fitting in with the broader culinary changes that were already under way.

The frequent association of pecans with the fall holidays, namely Thanksgiving, was a connection made all the more plausible because so many people had, at some point in the not too distant past, participated in a fall pecan harvest. Spiced pecans became a staple at holiday parties, “recipes for autumn” almost always included cups of pecans, “butter toasted pecans” were promoted as a “good solution to the gift problem,” and pumpkin pecan pie became a popular dessert on Thanksgiving dinner menus. Nuts in general came to be appreciated as “traditional food of the fall and of the season’s important holiday, Thanksgiving.” This development, too, helped encourage pecan consumption in the years of abundance after the war. The Pilgrims never ate pecans at Thanksgiving.
Holiday time or not, Americans were regularly eating pecans in their desserts, salads, and entrees by the end of the 1950s. The aristocrat of nuts had become something of a commoner. While the federal government and the nation’s leading food writers surely played a central role in helping pecan growers discover a lucrative domestic market for their surfeit of produce, a number of other changes also helped push pecans—traditionally an unappreciated or elusive native food—into American kitchens. Most notably, the first factor was that pecans were increasingly valued for their nutritional worth during an era when Americans began to take personal nutrition seriously. In 1941 Eleanor Roosevelt led an unprecedented National Nutrition Conference for Defense, and two years later the USDA published its first Recommended Dietary Allowances. Nuts did not make it onto the USDA’s iconic pyramid, but the fact remains that American consumers were starting to make a more conscious connection between diet and personal health. This growing interest would soon greatly benefit pecans.
Beulah’s Pecan Pie
Cooking with Texas Highways

Eddie Wilson of Threadgill’s restaurant in Austin provided his mother’s recipe for pecan pie, which also appear in The Threadgill’s Cookbook (1996). He said, “If at least one person in ten doesn’t think the pie is scorched, it’s not done enough to set the crispy sweetness of the pecans and brown sugar.”

  • 1 ½ c. firmly packed brown sugar
  • 2 ½ T. all-purpose flour
  • ¼ c. butter or stick margarine, melted
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 ⅓ c. light corn syrup
  • ¼ c. molasses
  • 1 ½ tsp. vanilla
  • 2 ½ c. pecan pieces (not halves)
  • 1 unbaked (10 in.) pastry shell
  • vanilla ice cream (optional)
  • chopped pecans (optional)
  • fresh mint (optional)
Combine sugar, flour, butter, and eggs in a bowl and whisk together. Add corn syrup, molasses, and vanilla; whisk until smooth. Arrange pecan pieces in unbaked pastry shell and pour liquid mixture over pecans. (The nuts will rise to the top during baking.) Bake at 350°F for 50 to 60 minutes or until filling is completely set in the center. Cool on a rack about an hour before serving. Serve with vanilla ice cream and garnish with chopped pecans and mint, if desired. Yield: One 10-inch pie.

—Eddie Wilson, July 1996

Craft with Pecans this Holiday Season!

‘Little Pecan-head dolls’ from 1963’s Highlights Magazine JUMBO Holiday Handbook

It may not have occurred to you to make dolls from pecan nuts, but now that you have the idea (thank you, Highlights magazine!), how can you resist? Don’t pass up the opportunity to craft Pilgrim Pecan People and Native American Pecan People and impress your friends and family.

No comments:

Post a Comment