Sunday, October 23, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 21: Pecans

The Pecan tree, or Carya illnionensis, is a true American native, as both it's common and Latin name suggest.  It is a member of the Hickory family, most of which is native to the north America.  The word "pecan" came from Native words of Algonquin ancestry: "paycahn" or paccan" both of which roughly mean that the nut must be cracked with a rock.  It should be noted that all nuts, be they hickory or walnuts, etc. went by this name since they all needed a stone to crack open.  The is a paper shell pecan as well.

Pecans are true nuts and grow on hardwood trees that can reach 130 feet in height, though most stand between 50 to 70 feet at maturity.  The pollinate like mad in the spring, and drop their nuts in the fall.  The pecan harvest is areas that grow a lot of them is almost as much of a rite of passage as the celebration of pumpkin and gourds coming to market, or the celebration of the the old native Green Corn Ceremony.  Like all hickory nuts and black walnuts the nuts develop inside a "fruit" called an exocarp or husk.  Unlike black walnuts, the husks open on their own and release the nut to fall to the ground, where it can simply be picked up and is ready for cracking.  The wood of the pecan tree is used as well.  For food preparations it is used in smoking, a practice that goes way back to pre-Columbian times.  The wood is also prized for using as a rather expensive lumber; most often going into furniture and fine wood floorings.

Pecans on tree in summer, still in green husks

The nuts can also be used as fodder for animals.  There is a very important food source invented in Virginia by feeding pecans and acorns (later peanuts) to imported pigs, not be settlers, but by members of the Powhatan Tsenacomo confederacy of tribes:  Virginia Hams.  A small group member of the confederacy, the Warraskoyake (Warrasquoyake) Tribe, started out friendly to the Jamestown colony and remained friendly to them throughout all the great differences that they had with the greater Powhatan leadership.  They were one of the first tribes to give the colony corn in winter and served as guides and interpreters for the English.  The Tribe lives in the area that is now called "Isle of Wight County" near present day Smithfield.  The colonists, as a show of gratitude toward these people gave them a few pigs when fresh supplies arrived from England in 1610.  As far as anyone knows, they are the first tribe in the confederacy to practice animal husbandry.  They fed their pigs pecans, acorns and hickory nuts, and dried them, along with big game, in hickory smoke houses--thus creating the first native hams in Virginia.  The English, as far as one knows, still fed their pigs turnips and other European fodder, until they found out what new world stuff was good to give to them in addition to their own sty food.  These pecan/hickory hams can be said to be the very first "Virginia" or "Smithfield" hams.

Again, it is the Spaniards that are credited with introducing them to Europe, although they are [possibly] described by the English early on as well.  William Bartram apparently describes them in his Travels of 1792.  But there is no doubt that the Spaniards encountered them first in the 16th century, possibly as far south as Veracruz, Mexico, but more probably, in abundance, north of there in what is now Texas and Louisiana.  They most probably would have also encountered them along the east coast, where they were known to grab Algonquin speaking native as slaves, and force provisions onto there ships as well.  Though pecans will spoil, go rancid and dry up if they are not stored properly, they sill would have been ideal travel food for ships headed to the Caribbean.

Pecan wood butcher top

The pecan is also a highly nutritious nuts, for people, pigs, squirrels, whatever might dine on them.  The are an excellent source of non-animal protein and unsaturated fats and is especially rich in omega-6 fatty acids.  Separate research shows that eating a handful of pecans every day can have the same effect of reducing LDL cholesterol levels as taking the much more dangerous drugs that are prescribed.  Research has also found that the same amount of pecans help reduce the onset of age related muscle degeneration and can reduce the possibility of woman forming gall stones.

As far as culinary uses goes, most American associate the pecan with seasonally Fall pecan pies served during the holidays; and aside from the traditional affair made with native corn syrup, there seem to be endless variations out there for this real dish.  Everything from chiffon pecan pies, custard pecans pies, butterscotch pecan pie, to chocolate or even vanilla pecan pies.  They tuck very well into individual pecan pies or tarts.  They are regionally associated with praline in New Orleans.  They also show up in mixed nut concoctions, with other true nuts with or without peanuts, salted and usually on the scarce side in these mixtures.  Because of their growing reputation as a nut that is very good for you eaten raw, new interest in serving them in a savory manner is cropping up.  They are being tossed into green or other types of salads, into salad dressing and vinaigrette's, they are even showing up in fall side dishes featuring winter squash or pumpkin and other fall ingredients like cranberries.  They also famously make up the Pecan Sandy cookie and the popular ice cream Butter Pecan; and they make up a frosting for German Chocolate Cake.

In the native kitchen they have long been an important ingredient.  In the old times, stands of pecan trees were not cleared of dead trees, since the inside of these trees provided a really good place to store gathered nuts, with no further building required for storage.  A very old and traditional soup uses rabbit and pecans in the Cherokee repertoire, and they can also go into the the very, very traditional Kenuche a dish made with white hominy.  Other groups in the southeast, such as the Muskogee Creek, roasted, pounded them and used them for nut milks, and for flour.  Pecans were known as far south as Central Mexico and they were mixed with native honey for sweet cakes, a kind of "brittle" there.  In the modern native kitchen they are put into fudge or sugared with honey or maple with fall berries, like cranberries.  They have also been a travelling food, and go very well into homemade trail mixes.  Pecan butter is also a homemade treat.  They are a great addition to most quick breads and they are put into seasonal stuffings and dressings.  In modern times they are even grown in Peru, Hawaii and Brazil.  They are also cultivated all over the world, from parts of Europe to India to South Africa.  

A Pecan Green Salad

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