In reward of the pecans, Texas’ favourite nut

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This article first appeared on Texas Highways. Click here to view the article in its original format.

The metal arms of a hydraulic shaker clamp around the trunk of a full-grown pecan tree, creating a high-speed vibrato that lasts nearly a minute. The ripe nuts hit the ground like splinters, while the violent trembling of the leaves sounds like hail on aluminum shingles.

At Swift River Pecans in Fentress, just outside Lockhart, Troy Swift and his crew harvest pecans for another long day. Here in central Texas, the state’s pecan epicenter, the harvest begins in October and lasts through early January. Each tree is shaken once and the pecans are mechanically collected from the ground and taken to the company’s cleaning facility.

Swift River is just one of many pecan plantations that keep this integral nut on Texas tables. The ubiquity of pecans in holiday dishes, BBQ pits, and backyards across the state makes them easy to take for granted. But crack the shell and you’ll find a story about the economy, anthropology, agriculture, and aesthetics of the state capitalized.

The pecan belt stretches from northern Mexico to northern Illinois. Pecans, one of the few large tree nuts in North America, are now grown in 15 states. Texas is the third largest producer in the country after Georgia and New Mexico. By the beginning of the 20th century, pecan cultivation was so widespread and successful in Texas that lawmakers designated the pecan tree as the official state tree. Around this time the city of San Saba in the hill country declared itself the “pecan capital of the world”.

“In a good season, the Texas pecan industry will produce about 50 million pounds of nuts,” said Bob Whitney, executive director of the Texas Pecan Board.

While Texas pecan farming is primarily a family business, Swift started trading as a second career and has grown into a well respected breeder and industry expert.

Swift and his wife, Athanasee Swift, started farming in 1998 after transitioning from a career in manufacturing. Two years after buying 66 acres on the San Marcos River in Staples, Swift planted pecan trees in hopes they would bear nuts by the time they reached retirement age. Today he owns two thriving orchards that produce 14 varieties of hybrid pecans and wild native pecans, and a busy sawmill. The mill supplies lumber from pecans and other hardwood trees that are sought after by furniture makers and other artisans. The extra income allows Swift to keep its employees year round.

The wild pecan trees here are of the Carya illinoinensis species that is native to the pecan belt. Some are more than 200 years old and 100 feet tall. “I like working with trees, being in the orchard and the science behind it,” says Swift. “But it’s also about being in nature.” Indeed the farm is like a natural cathedral, all filtered light and silence except for the crackling of steps and the scuffling of small animals and birds. On the edge of Swift’s Fentress property is an incredibly green river. A combination of well-drained soil, sun, and moisture provides the ideal environment for pecan trees to thrive, which is why most pecans in Texas are grown in or near river valleys.

From fossils to family farms

The banks of the Rio Grande have produced fossilized pecans that are estimated to be 65 million years old. Based on archaeological evidence, pecans were an important source of fiber and monounsaturated fat for American Indians in Texas 5,000 or more years ago. “Pecan” is a corruption of the Algonquin word “pacane”, a nut that needs a stone to crack its shell.

“The earliest records of our people speak of the importance of the pecan as a source of food,” said Ramón Juan Vasquez, executive director of the Texas Indians in the Spanish Colonial Missions and a member of the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation.

Vasquez notes that pecans, mesquite, and prickly pear were the native foods of the Coahuiltecan, and that Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca wrote extensively about the nuts in his 1544 memoir book, La Relación, after seeing them Native people fed his travels through Mexico. “Local foods have awe and holiness,” says Adán Medrano, a Mexican-American chef, food writer, and documentary filmmaker. “They give us a connection to our ancestors and make us aware of the seasons and the diet of mother earth.”

Historians believe that Spanish colonists in northern Mexico were the first to actually plant pecan trees. In Louisiana, in the mid-19th century, the first graft propagation was achieved by an enslaved gardener known only as Antoine. According to horticulturalists LJ Grauke and TE Thompson, this was the “beginning of modern pecan culture”.

Today, new types of nuts are developed through hybridization. Once a hybrid has been tested and has the desired properties, it can be grafted. Using flexible tape and wax, a twig or sprout of the desired hybrid can be attached to an existing tree called a rhizome. Once the graft grows, the entire tree above the graft is the new desired variety.

The aristocrat of nuts

The hill country town of San Saba is home to a large, towering tree known as the “mother pecan”. According to the Texas A&M Forest Service website, it is “the source of more important varieties than any other pecan tree in the world … discovered by an Englishman named EE Risien who started the first commercial pecan nursery in San Saba County.”

Risien founded the West Texas Pecan Nursery in 1888 and for years artificially pollinated the mother tree with pollen obtained from male flowers in the region. He also experimented with buds and plugs. Now Risien’s great-great-grandson Winston Millican is a fifth generation breeder in San Saba. He farms more than 1,000 acres of pecans while his wife Kristen Millican oversees the Millican Pecan business, which sells nuts in the shell, confectionery, cakes, pecan butter and toasted pecan syrup. The mother pecan still lives on her private property. His health has been monitored by horticulturalists who estimate his age to be up to 200 years.

Like the Millicans, the Berdoll family from Cedar Creek has grown pecans for generations outside of Bastrop. In 1948 the brothers Dan and Sebe Berdoll farm 100 acres that their father bought. “Farming is hard work and you don’t always make a living,” says Dan. “It’s not an 8:00 am arrival, 5:00 pm leaving, but it’s a good life. And I don’t have to commute. I step out my door, I’m at work. I get off my tractor and am home. “

Dan’s niece Jennifer Wammack and husband Jared Wammack own and operate the Berdoll Pecan Candy & Gift Company, which is located in front of the farm on State Highway 71. When you see Ms. Pearl, the tallest squirrel statue in the world, you will I know you are there. In addition to their famous sticky cakes, the Berdolls make fudge, pecan bars, brittle, honey butter, caramels, pralines, and chocolate clusters.

In addition to the business, the employees of the packing house process Berdoll pecans, which are to be in the shell, whole, halved or incorporated into confectionery and baked goods. During harvest time, the packing house resembles Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, with workers loading hundreds of thousands of pecans into 14-foot hoppers. The pecans then fall onto conveyor belts to be sorted, packaged, and shipped by hand.

In the sterile rooms around the production area, employees dip, stir, whip, pour, bake and pack in various ways. The air is intoxicating with the scent of chocolate, butter and caramelized sugar.

More than cake

The Berdolls grow six types of pecans, including the popular pawnee, a large, rich, buttery nut with a pleasantly oily finish. In 1955, the USDA’s chief gardener HL Crane suggested naming the new pecan varieties after the Indian tribes of the pecan belt, hence names like Comanche, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Oconee, Caddo, Nacono and Lakota.

The variations in taste and texture are noticeable, with some nuts having a substantial meaty consistency; higher oil content; or more aromatic properties than others. These properties determine their use for baking, for manufactured products (commercial confectionery, packaged pieces, oil) and for snacks.

Whitney, executive director of the Texas Pecan Board, notes that chefs who prioritize local sourcing are increasingly interested in purchasing certain varieties. “They like the idea of ​​using something that is native to Texas, but it’s also just that they taste really good and work well raw or cooked,” he says.

Michael Fojtasek, award-winning chef and owner of Austins Olamaie, who has gained national recognition for his contemporary Mediterranean cuisine, often features pecans on his menu. “It’s always the first nut that comes to mind,” says the native Texan. “I love cooking with them because they are as versatile as they can be presented, but they also have such dynamic taste and texture. In the restaurant I like to fry them very dark to get a deep, rich, tannic quality. I love them at home, candied with a reasonable amount of salt next to a cold beer. “

In San Antonio, Steve McHugh, chef and owner of the Cured restaurant, has received similar awards for his menu and commitment to the area’s farmers and ranchers. “I try to use ingredients that are native to the region, from pecans to prickly pear,” he says. “There are so many types of pecans to choose from and I love to smoke them. Their oil holds the flavor very well and we use them in dishes like a kale salad or in sauces like a mole. “

Whether naconos or locals, pecans and trees are intertwined with the history of Texas. For smallholders like the Berdolls, Swifts, and Millicans, pecans are also a bridge between their community and America’s culinary and agricultural heritage.

“Knowing that we’re running a business my parents started 40 years ago is a real blessing,” says Kristen Millican. “When we hear from the same customers for Thanksgiving cake orders every year, we’re very proud of what we do.”

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