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Updated: 6:27 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 | Posted: 6:27 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012

Texas pecan industry slowly bouncing back from drought



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Texas pecan industry slowly bouncing back from drought photo
Addie Broyles
The pecan tree planted in 1969 at the Hogg family grave in Oakwood Cemetery off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard didn’t survive the drought. The tree was planted in honor of one of Hogg’s last requests that nut-bearing trees be planted instead of a stone grave so that other Texans could plant the nuts to grow more trees. The original tree died sometime in the first half of the 20th century.
Texas pecan industry slowly bouncing back from drought photo
Renee Brock
Coffeecake is nice as a treat after dinner, or for breakfast or an afternoon break. This is an apple-pecan version with a layer of apples adding richness and pecans giving crunch.
Texas pecan industry slowly bouncing back from drought photo
UNC Press
Kathleen Purvis recently wrote ‘Pecans,’ a history of her favorite nut and a collection of her favorite pecan recipes.
Texas pecan industry slowly bouncing back from drought photo
Addie Broyles
Pecans are falling from trees all over Austin right now. I gathered these on a walk in my neighborhood, and cracked into them with my kids, who relish in the opportunity to eat something that they helped find.

By Addie Broyles

American-Statesman Staff

Squirrels aren’t the only ones scurrying after those big brown pecans dropping from trees across Central Texas.

After a small harvest last year and countless trees lost to the drought, both hobby foragers and local growers are reporting a better crop than last year, but, as Oliver Pecan Company owner Shawn Oliver puts it, “it’s been a very weird season.”

We had spurts of rain over the summer, which helped the distressed trees, Oliver says, but the influx of water in a short period of time means that the trees put off more shells than they can fill. “A lot of the trees had too heavy a crop load,” he says, which means there aren’t as many high-quality pecans.

This year’s Texas crop, which is second only to Georgia’s, is on track to hit 55 million pounds, slightly more than the pre-drought average and more than double last year’s total of 23 million pounds.

Between 2 and 5 million of those pounds will come from San Saba County, the self-proclaimed “Pecan Capital of the World,” where Oliver has been in the pecan industry since his family started the company in 1970.

Despite the low yield last year, the lack of rain meant fewer pecans using each tree’s nutrients, Oliver says, so the quality (and price) of the pecans was actually higher last year.

“But everyone is starting to figure out that quality is going to be an issue, so the cost could go up,” Oliver says.

Usually, squirrels are a pecan grower’s biggest nuisance — one squirrel can harvest 40 pounds of pecans in a year, Oliver says — but last year, thieves on two legs came after the cash crop.

But theft hasn’t been much of an issue this year. “People are finding out that the quality isn’t that great and they don’t want to get caught stealing something not worth as much.”

Over at the Great San Saba River Pecan Company, Martha Newkirk says they’ve seen some “wafers,” or the thin, small pecans, but it’s still a little early in the season to tell whether the wafers will outnumber the plump pecans that home cooks love to show off in Thanksgiving pies.

Many area orchards, including the Great San Saba River Pecan Company, offer pick-your-own pecans, which run about $2 a pound, and Newkirk says she was encouraged by the quality of the pecans that people picked last weekend. “What we’ve seen so far is pretty good,” she says.

It’s no coincidence that the pecan harvest and demand from consumers peak around the same time: Thanksgiving.

Kathleen Purvis, food editor for the Charlotte Observer newspaper and a Georgia native who recently published a book dedicated to her favorite nut, says that Americans have a natural affinity for pecans because they are an indigenous nut that had been part of the North American diet long before Spanish and European settlers started exploring the continent.

“Like a pine nut dubs something Italian and a walnut dubs something English, a pecan is the original American nut,” she says. (Though technically a drupe and not a nut, pecans are still more nutlike than peanuts, which are legumes, she points out.)

“The botanical history is hidden in the name,” Purvis says. Carya illinoinensis is the name of a dominant species, but to American settlers who discovered the tree as they moved West, it was simply “the Illinois nut.” They eventually started using the word “pecan,” from a similar Algonquian word that meant a nut that required a stone to crack.

Scientists have found evidence of American Indians who lived entirely on pecans for months at a time, grinding them into a flour to bake with or to mix with water to make a high-protein “milk.”

Now, Americans tend to prefer mixing them with sugar to make pies, cookies and pralines, but their texture and slightly creamy flavor have savory applications, too, in dishes such as pecan-crusted chicken and pecan soup. Austin’s Zhi Tea has even incorporated organic pecans into a new raspberry rooibos tea.

No matter if she’s making something sweet or savory with pecans, Purvis always uses a pinch of salt to bring out the flavor of the nuts.

During her research for the book, Purvis sat down with all of her Southern cookbooks and created a chart based on how each author called for making a pecan pie, which according to her research has roots in the English treacle pie.

While she was charting how many eggs the recipes called for, what kind of sweetener, whether the nuts should be chopped or whole, she found an interesting twist in recipes from the ’30s and ’40s: cornmeal. Through her recipe testing, she discovered that the cornmeal in the filling creates a crisper crust on the top, which gives a contrast in texture to the gooey inside.

The No. 1 question Purvis is asked, though, is about pronunciation. She’s discovered that “puh-cahn” versus “pee-can” is more of a class distinction than a regional one. She’s even heard people call the nut “pee-kun,” which is closer to the original Algonquian word.

No matter how you say the word or how you like to make your pecan pie, the pecan industry in Texas is evolving.

San Saba growers lost more than 25,000 pecan trees in the past year, and Oliver says he and many other growers are waiting until early next year to do most of the replanting.

The number of growers is also declining. “We used to deal with 60 or 75 growers, now it’s us and maybe 12 more.”

It’s hard to walk far in Austin without coming upon a pecan tree. Not all of them are the kind that bear nuts worth cracking, but keep your eyes open for clusters of big, brown heavy nuts hanging within reach. As with any public foraging, ask the property owner first before picking, but if you’re in a public park, the pecans are free for the taking.

Take a cue from the squirrels: Crack them open, clean out the meat and store the nuts in the freezer so you can enjoy them all winter long.


Sausage Pecan Stuffing

When it comes to Thanksgiving stuffing, it’s hard to get a more classic flavor combination than sausage and pecans. The result is a salty, nutty, sweet, crunchy and tender combination of flavors and textures. For simplicity, we bake our stuffing in a side dish, but you could use it to stuff the bird, too. Just be sure to adjust your cooking time and make sure the interior temperature reaches a safe 165 degrees.

12 oz. loose Italian sausage meat (hot or sweet)

1 large yellow onion, chopped

2 carrots, finely diced

2 stalks celery, diced

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

3/4 cup chopped toasted pecans

1 (12-oz.) bag seasoned stuffing cubes

2 eggs

2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken or turkey broth

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a large casserole dish or 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, saute the sausage meat, breaking it up as it cooks and browns, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the onion, carrots, celery, salt and black pepper. Cook for another 6 to 8 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent.

In a large bowl, combine the sausage mixture with the pecans and stuffing cubes. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until foamy, then whisk in the broth. Pour the egg and broth mixture over the stuffing mixture and gently stir to thoroughly mix. Spoon into the prepared casserole dish or baking pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until browned and cooked through. Serves 8.

— Alison Ladman, Associated Press

Pecan Meringue Bites

2 large egg whites

2 Tbsp. packed light brown sugar

1⁄2 cup granulated sugar

1⁄8 tsp. salt

1⁄2 tsp. vanilla

1⁄2 cup coarsely chopped pecans

1 tsp. cornstarch

1⁄2 tsp. white vinegar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 1 or 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick foil.

Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they form stiff peaks when the beaters are lifted. Beat in the brown sugar and granulated sugar a tablespoon at a time. Beat in the salt and vanilla.

Sprinkle the pecans, cornstarch, and vinegar over the beaten egg-white mixture. Fold in gently but thoroughly with a rubber spatula.

Using a teaspoon, spoon the batter onto the lined baking sheets. (Don’t worry about getting the cookies too close together.)

Place the baking sheets in the oven. Turn off the oven and leave them in the oven with the door closed for 8–12 hours or overnight. Peel the cookies off the parchment or foil and store in an airtight container. Makes about 30 small cookies.

— “Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook” by Kathleen Purvis (North Carolina Press, $18)

Apple-Pecan Coffeecake

Drizzled with icing and laden with pecans, cinnamon and raisins, this Apple-Pecan Coffee Cake has the flavor of cinnamon rolls and the structure of a coffeecake. The apples add a layer of elegance, and pecan halves give crunch. And a drizzle of sweet sugary icing makes this cinnamon-scented fall coffeecake truly transcendent.

For the coffeecake:

1 cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 large eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 cups self-rising flour

1 cup sour cream

1 large apple

2 tsp. fresh lemon juice

¼ cup brown sugar

½ tsp. cinnamon

For the topping:

2 Tbsp. flour

½ cup dark brown sugar, packed

¼ cup unsalted butter

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 ½ cups pecan halves

½ cup raisins

For the icing:

½ cup confectioners’ sugar

4 tsp. milk

¼ tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9- or 10-inch spring-form cake pan with butter. (You may also use a 9-inch square or 13-by-9-inch pan.) To make the cake: Cream sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Add the 2 cups of flour alternately with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the flour and mixing well after each addition. Spread batter in greased pan.

Core the apple (no need to peel) and slice into ¼ inch slices. Place in medium bowl. Sprinkle with lemon juice, brown sugar and cinnamon. Toss well to coat, and place apple slices in a circle around the top of the batter.

To make the topping: Pulse flour, brown sugar, butter and cinnamon in a food-processor bowl until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Dump into a bowl, and stir in the pecan halves and raisins so that they are coated with the brown-sugar mixture. Sprinkle topping evenly on cake.

Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes.

To make the icing: Mix confectioners’ sugar, milk and vanilla in a small bowl.

When cake is cool, remove the side of the spring-form pan, and place cake on a plate or stand. Drizzle with icing. Cut into wedges and serve warm. Serves 12.

— Wendell Brock, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

One of the most famous pecan trees in Texas is no longer standing.

Last year’s drought killed thousands of pecan trees throughout the state, but few have such a history as the one that stood on the foot of the grave of former Texas Gov. James Hogg in Oakwood Cemetery in East Austin.

On his deathbed in 1906, Hogg requested that a pecan tree be planted at his head and a walnut tree planted at his feet so that “when these trees shall bear, let the pecans and walnuts be given out among the plain people of Texas so they may plant them and make Texas a land of trees.”

Those original trees died sometime in the first half of the 20th century, but in 1969, the Texas Forest Service and the Texas Forestry Association hosted a planting ceremony attended by Ima Hogg, the governor’s daughter who was there when her father made the original request.

The pecan tree, a Choctaw donated by the Texas Pecan Growers Association, which Hogg had established in 1906, was still standing near the family grave up until a few weeks ago, when workers had to cut down the tree because it hadn’t recovered from the 2011 drought.

Pete Smith, the partnership coordinator with the Texas A&M Forest Service-Urban Forestry Program, says though he hopes to see another pecan tree planted to help keep the Hogg story alive, you can’t just stick another sapling in the ground and assume it will thrive, especially in a cemetery like Oakwood that is still cleaning up after last summer’s epic dry spell with no assurance that we won’t have another one in the next few years.

The Lone Star chapter of Questers, a local historical preservation group that has been caring for the site since 2004, is working with the city’s parks and recreation department and urban forestry board to replant the tree.

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