The Pecan

A History of America’s Native Nut

What would Thanksgiving be without pecan pie? New Orleans without pecan without pecan pralines? Southern cooks would have to hang up their aprons without America’s native nut, whose popularity has spread far beyond the tree’s natural home. But as familiar as the pecan is, most people don’t know the fascinating story of how native pecan trees fed Americans for thousands of years until the nut was “improved” with a little more than a century ago – and why that rapid domestication actualy threatens the pecan’s long-term future.

In The Pecan, acclaimed writer and historian James McWilliams explores the history of America’s most important commercial nut. He describes how essential the pecan was for Native Americans – by some calculations, an average pecan harvest had the food value of nearly 150,000 bison. McWilliams explains that, because of its natural edibility, abundance, and ease of harvesting, the pecan was left in its natural state longer than any other commercial fruit or nut crop in America. Yet once the process of “improvement” began, it took less than a century for the pecan to be almost totally domesticated. Today, more than 300 million pounds of pecans are produced every year in the United States – and as much of half of that total might be exported to China, which has fallen in love with America’s native nut. McWilliams also warns that as ubiquitous as the pecan has become, it is vulnerable to a “perfect storm” of economic threats and ecological disasters that could wipe it out within a generation. This lively history suggest why the pecan deserves to be recognized as a true American heirloom.

Reviews:

“Pecans are America’s native nut, one rarely seen outside North American kitchens. Although the New World readily exported tobacco, tomatoes, chili peppers, and potatoes to Europe, there was simply no market for pecans, perhaps because they seemed too similar to Europe’s walnuts and because pecan wood is not generally desirable for lumber. From the beginning, pecans were harvested from the wild, but growing demand soon rendered such foraging obsolete. By the turn of the twentieth century, advances in grafting made pecan orchards possible, and the number of pecan trees increased exponentially, especially in Georgia. The invention of corn syrup gave birth to pecan pie, and the pecan became indissolubly linked with Southern cuisine. Recent years have witnessed a remarkable and hugely profitable resurgence in pecan cultivation due to explosive demand for the nut from China, where pecans’ exotic novelty has transformed the humble nut into a coveted status symbol.” (Mark Knoblauch – Booklist)

“This excellent and charming story describes a tree that endured numerous hardships to become not only a staple of Southern cuisine but an American treasure.” (Ann Wilberton, Pace University Library – Library Journal)

“Writer and historian James McWilliams chronicles the fascinating rise of the familiar and delicious foodstuff known as the buttery main ingredient in Southern staples such as pralines and pecan pie.” (Atlanta Journal Constitution)

“McWilliams’s previous writing embraces food and agriculture from a deliciously human point of view. Here, spurred by a personal interest in the pecan tree in his own yard, he pays homage to a subject of particular interest (and pleasure) to Texans.” (Texas Books in Review)

“Food historian McWilliams, sparked by the realization that he knew nothing about the wild pecan tree that dominated his backyard, wrote this volume as an endevour of curiosity. Delving into various aspects of the Carya illinoinensis (named for Illinois, a fertile area for these idigenous tres) and their nuts, the book treats readers to a multidimensional exploration of a suprisingly fascinating subject [...] McWilliams marches through American (and pre-American) history, viewing all through the lens of the pecan, and in doing so exposes the very personality of the tree and nut analogous to Americans themselves: willful, hardened, wild and dynamic. Summing Up: High recommended.” (Choice)