The History of Pecans

Learn how pecans became an American staple in desserts just in time to enjoy them over the holidays.

| November 2018

  • Once eaten only as a snack to munch on occasionally, pecans can now be found in anything from desserts to salads.
    Photo courtesy of Getty Images / Amarita
  • “The Pecan” by James McWilliams takes a look back at the importance of the pecan throughout the years and how it came to be the dietary staple it is today.
    Cover courtesy of University of Texas Press

The popularization of pecans occurred through a series of discrete developments. The first involved the federal government. It is difficult to overstate precisely how critical the USDA’s roll was in promoting the pecan as an ideal wartime replacement for meat, much of which was reserved for men in uniform who were doing their part overseas. The agency aggressively spread the message that in an era of food rationing, “nuts, be it remembered in these meat-short days, are a good source of protein.” Jane Nickerson, food writer at the New York Times, reminded her vast readership in 1945 that “with the scarcity of shortenings in mind, the Government is pointing out that most nuts are at least half fat, and may be used in cooking to impart richness.” The Chicago Daily Tribune followed suit, promoting the “pecan loaf” as a “good meatless entree for a Friday meal.” The government even went so far as to suggest recipes for housewives (and yes, it specified housewives) to undertake. “Home economists,” according to one report, “suggest roasting nuts in a little fat in a frying pan, allowing two teaspoons of cooking oil or melted vegetable or table fat and one teaspoon of salt to each cup of nut meats.” In 1942, a USDA program deemed pecans “a Victory Food Special.” And in 1948, the USDA placed pecans on its hit list of “plentiful foods,” thereby encouraging Americans to consume them as an expression of postwar national pride. With federal assistance, the war was good to the pecan.

The government complemented its soft promotion of pecans with harder economic measures. In 1943, to encourage more active consumption by average citizens, it established a price ceiling on pecans and other nuts. The Office of Price Administration aimed to save consumers “at least 10 cents a pound.” This measure, not surprisingly, led to a minor insurgency from pecan orchardists, who declared declining prices “a major headache” that was “extremely depressing to growers.” The government responded to this discontent in the early 1950s by buying up surplus pecans. In 1952 it scooped into federal coffers more than 3 million pounds of nuts. Flooded every year with an excess of pecans, the government turned around and dumped them on grammar schools throughout the country, where the pecans were fed to captive children held hostage by their school lunch menu. This program worked, but only to a point. One school superintendent from the Chicago area complained that the burden of feeding 800 pounds of pecans to 1,300 elementary school students left his cafeteria manager “beside herself.” Not only did federal pecan purchasing lead to practically force-feeding pecans to schoolchildren, but it pushed orchardists to increase production even further to earn money on the margins, a cycle that was all too common in industrial agriculture. In 1950 U.S. farmers produced 125,622,000 pounds of pecans. A year later, with federal purchases initiated, they produced 143,137,000 pounds. This 13 percent increase was not unusual, but it demanded consistent boosts in consumption.

Pecans went into more than the reluctant mouths of kids at school. For most of American history, pecans were eaten as they were, in unprocessed form and primarily by the handful. Except for pralines, Americans traditionally tended not to include them in desserts, much less in salads or in enchiladas or on fish or as addenda to main courses. Instead, they were accustomed to cracking, possibly roasting, and eating the nuts whole. That’s what you did with a pecan. “They are apt,” wrote one commentator in 1900, “to be munched at odd hours.” One reason they were not munched at all hours may have been that nuts had a reputation for being not only expensive but hard on the digestive system. The USDA had been telling Americans since the late nineteenth century how “nuts, generally speaking, are not indigestible, despite the popular impression to the contrary.” Nevertheless, the “popular impression” was hard to shake. It was widely thought that pecans, while fine for eating every now and then, should not occupy a central role in the American diet. The government, having agreed to buy pecans from producers, desperately wanted to alter that common perception. The situation began to change with the onset of what seemed to be an endless stream of pecans in the 1940s. American food would have to find room for these nuts. Desserts — if food writers had any say in the matter — would lead the way. French Americans had been producing pralines in Louisiana since the middle of the eighteenth century. It was not long, however, before American cookbook writers, newspaper food columnists, and chefs started to highlight the potential of pecans as an essential element of every imaginable dessert. Something about the pecan’s natural buttery flavor blended well with sweetness. The process of introducing the pecan to the American sweet tooth started with American GIs living overseas, to whom Uncle Sam sent care packages of something called “Pecan caramel Rolls.” By 1946, these rare delicacies were being sold in New York City, with the Times reporting that the treats were “new to civilians,” but “ex-GIs may remember having them in the South Pacific.”

With astonishing abruptness, pecans were transformed into a ubiquitous dessert addendum as production increased and prices dropped. In 1947, the Chicago Daily Tribune could note, “While only a fifth of the walnut crop goes to bakers, candy manufacturers, and other food processors, over half of the pecan crop goes to these commercial interests.” Central to this transition were desserts such as those mentioned in the same article: pecan candy rolls, pecan cakes, and southern pecan pie (more on this soon). A pecan candy roll consisted of sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, rock salt, and pecans. Essentially the sugars and syrup were mixed and melted, pecans were added, balls were rolled, and the confection was cooked, cooled, and hardened in tin candy molds. Pecan cakes included eggs, butter, sugar, flour, cinnamon, and pecans. Fat and sugar were creamed with the help of an egg yolk; flour, cinnamon, and pecans were mixed in; the concoction was baked, then “cut in squares while hot.” They became an extremely popular end to a typical American meat-and- potatoes meal.

It is difficult to convey the diversity and creativity that characterized the pecan-dessert craze in the 1940s and 1950s. It can be said, though, that this diversity and creativity were emblematic of a uniquely American way of eating — one that was not bound by strict culinary traditions and was open to virtually any reasonable (or not) form of innovation. Here is a select list of some the confections created to accommodate the relentless pecan surplus: pecan sticks, pecan muffins, pecan pumpkin pie, pecan loaf, pecan gold cake, pecan cookies, honey pecan pie, orange pecan pie, pecan cookies, pecan bars, pecan pudding, pecan coffee cake, pecan gingerbread, pecan doughnuts, pecan mint mousse, and pecan peach shortcake. This list, of course, could go on for pages, but the key point is that the surplus, complemented as it was by federal promotional efforts, was essential to this important burst of confectionery creativity.

 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.”

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