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Texas pecan industry slowly bouncing back from drought

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
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.

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