The History of Pecans

article image
Unsplash/Deryn Macey

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 courts 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.”

Amid the dizzying array of pecan-inspired desserts, the American sweet tooth elevated a couple of dishes to some- thing 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 1/3 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 sauteed 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.

Reprinted with permission from The Pecan by James McWilliams and published by University of Texas Press, 2013.

  • Updated on Nov 1, 2021
  • Originally Published on Dec 3, 2018
Tagged with: Autumn, fall, History, nut, pecans