Harvesting History

An appreciation of the pecan

Jodi Bonner combs her Shoal Creek-area yard for pecans.
Jodi Bonner combs her Shoal Creek-area yard for pecans. (Photo By John Anderson)

Visceral memory, circa 1980. On the clearest of blue November days, I'm slowly circumnavigating Eastwoods Park, eyes on the ground, feet shuffling through fallen leaves, turning up enough pecans to make a pie for a Thanksgiving potluck dinner among impoverished graduate students. It's a hit with some European and Asian colleagues who've never seen pecans before.

Cut to 20 years earlier and another perfect November afternoon. In a time-honored, biannual ritual, my father's family fans out across my grandparents' pastureland, gunnysacks in tow. Three generations of Packs sidestep cowpats to harvest the abundant pecan crop bestowed by ancestral trees whose roots, like the family's, sink deep into the sandy Brazos River bottomland. Later, the grownups sit together on my grandmother's screened-in gallery, shelling pecans and idly swapping stories over cold Dr Peppers.

Fast-forward to November of 2005. Right on schedule, it's another Texas "pecan year," and even my three water-deprived center-city trees seem to be yielding up a respectable crop that the entitled, center-city squirrels might even share with me. If I'm lucky, my parents and aunt will visit this fall and once again patiently pick out my pecans for some hardcore holiday baking.

Early Pecan History

Gathering and eating pecans every second November is a rite that's occurred in Texas for a very long time. Archeological evidence suggests that the pecan tree (found only in North America) originated in South Texas and northern Mexico near rivers and creeks, and that humans here were consuming the nuts at least 8,000 years ago. It's likely that early nomadic peoples spread native pecans north and east into the Mississippi Valley, and farther south into Mexico.

The pecan tree, officially named Carya illinoinensis in 1969, is part of the hickory family and related to the walnut. These nuts are drupes, signifying an edible kernel surrounded by a shell and a fleshy husk.

The first recorded description of pecans is from 1533. As every Texas schoolchild learns, the Spaniard Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked near Galveston in 1528, was captured by Karankawas, and wandered with them in Texas for seven years. In his diary, he writes about tribes congregating every other winter along certain river valleys to subsist on flavorful nuts. He called them, simply, nueces (nuts), or nogales, meaning walnuts. In the Texas/Mexican borderlands even today, nueces remains the most common term for pecans.

The word "pecan" comes from the Algonquin word pacane, for "nut too hard to crack by hand," and tribes throughout the Mississippi Valley used similar terms. Spanish explorers called it pacano, and the French modified it to pecane. The first recorded use of "pacane" was by Jean Penicault, a ship's carpenter visiting Natchez, Miss., in 1704 with the d'Iberville expedition.

An early documented instance of pecan cultivation was when Thomas Jefferson carried trees from the Mississippi Valley to the eastern shores of Virginia. He gave plantings to George Washington at Mount Vernon in 1775; the future first president was said to be quite fond of snacking on what he variously called "Mississippi nuts," "Illinois nuts," and "poccons." (Later, Lyndon Johnson would take to them, too: Pecan pie was often served on Air Force One. I don't know how the two other Texas presidents feel about the official state nut; I suspect pecans aren't huge in Kennebunkport.)

Just as they did with pioneers in the remote, outlying province of Mexico called Texas, Native Americans introduced early New Orleans settlers to pecans, who immediately incorporated them into Creole cuisine. Le Page du Pratz, who lived in Louisiana between 1718 and 1734, records in his Histoire de la Louisiane that pecans had "a flavor so fine that the French make 'pralines' of them as good as those made of almonds."

The Texas Pecan Business

Despite the fact that they grew wild for the picking, pecans always maintained some commercial aspect. As early as 1802, the French were shipping Louisiana nuts through New Orleans to the West Indies. Traditionally, pecans were a commodity used for barter by indigenous peoples, as well as by early settlers into the 1840s and 1850s.

Ferdinand von Roemer, a German scientist who rambled around Texas in the late 1840s, wrote that "Everywhere in Texas, especially in river bottoms grow pecan trees ... which bear fruit resembling walnuts. Whole wagon loads of these are gathered in the fall and brought to Houston, from which point they are shipped to the northern states." Immediately after the Civil War and into the 20th century, gathering wild pecans provided a necessary livelihood for many people – black, white, and brown – who had few other economic options.

Hal and Lisa Berdoll
Hal and Lisa Berdoll (Photo By John Anderson)

A Louisiana slave remembered only as Antoine was the first to successfully graft pecan trees, at the Oak Alley Plantation in 1847. By 1880, Texas landowners had begun planting orchards and growing pecans commercially, the beginnings of huge statewide industry.

At about the same time, Swiss-Texan candy-maker Gustav Duerler of San Antonio bartered with Native Americans for pecans and hired poor Mexicans to crack the nuts with railroad spikes and pick out the meats with tow sack needles. His workers produced more than local demand required, so, in 1882, Duerler shipped the first 50 barrels of shelled pecan meats to East Coast markets.

The market demand increased exponentially, and San Antonio evolved as a center for the burgeoning pecan-shelling industry. But a dark side emerged: In 400 factories, the tedious, unhealthy, and abysmally paid labor of hand-processing nuts fell to thousands of Mexicans, whose numbers exploded in San Antonio in the 1920s as a result of the Mexican Revolution. During the Depression, wages dropped to five cents per pound of shelled nuts, even as the industry itself boomed.

In 1938, under the charismatic leadership of Emma Tenayuca Brooks, 12,000 pecan workers, mostly women, walked off the job; the three-month San Antonio Pecan Shellers' Strike and its effect on the city's business and politics became a landmark case in the annals of the American labor movement. Within two short years, however, economic forces decreed that the shelling business be totally mechanized, and the beleaguered pecan-shelling workforce was permanently out of a job.

The Texas pecan industry continues to flourish on into this century. According to the Texas Pecan Producers Board, this state yields an average annual crop of 60 million pounds, second only to Georgia (where pecans were naturalized in the 19th century). Along the way, horticultural and arboreal practices have become ever more sophisticated, irrigation has expanded the pecan-growing territories, and various "papershell" strains have been developed. Pecan varietals cultivated in Texas include Western, Desirable, Wichita, Choctaw, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Sioux, Caddo, and Burkett.

A Family Pecan Farm

Virtually every Texas region supports some commercial pecan production, and the Austin area is no exception. Just a few miles east of Bergstrom airport, Berdoll Pecan Farm (www.berdoll.com) produces 300,000 lbs. of pecans a year.

Twenty-five years ago, Hal and Lisa Berdoll planted their 150-acre pecan orchard on the banks of the Colorado. Hal's family traditionally raised cattle and planted row crops on the rich bottomland that now sustains row after stately row of 8,000 pecan trees, along with the supporting greenhouses, barns, and production sheds.

This is a farm family that lives and breathes pecans: Their home is in the middle of a grove; Hal oversees the orchards, nursery, and bakery; Lisa runs the office; and daughter Jennifer manages the retail store.

When their trees were 4 years old, the Berdolls began selling pecans out of their garage, but soon progressed to a small shed on the edge of the property, just off Highway 71. In the new air-conditioned facility that replaced the shed only this year, they offer several varieties of pecans in every imaginable quantity (whole, cracked, and shelled), as well as 12 kinds of pecan candy, pecan pies, and young pecan trees. They've developed a thriving catalog business and have recently set up for online sales to customers who hail from as far away as Australia.

The Berdolls' primary crop is Wichita pecans, a high-maintenance, high-management variety that has a high yield per acre. They also grow Choctaw, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Pawnee varietals – all papershells that have varying degrees of sweetness and oil content, differences in appearance, and ripening schedules.

In addition to the nut business, Hal Berdoll maintains a pecan-tree nursery that encompasses an astonishing 80,000 baby trees. At the pecan store, $50 buys you a flourishing 12-foot-tall, 2-year-old tree, along with plenty of sage advice about how to plant and take care of it. Lisa says you must water, fertilize, and spray pecan trees regularly for a reliable yield. Unless you're willing to do that, she opines, you might as well buy nuts from her and just enjoy the shade.

When I asked Lisa if she still likes pecans after 25 years of such intense exposure, she retrieves a baggie of pecan halves from her desk. "This is my snack. I eat pecans every day, beginning with some on my oatmeal. Heck, even my dog eats pecans."

Pecans in the City

Frank Rainosek works the pecan-cracking machine at the Shoal Crest Senior Activity Center.
Frank Rainosek works the pecan-cracking machine at the Shoal Crest Senior Activity Center. (Photo By John Anderson)

Once you start noticing, you see that Austin parks and yards all over town are just rife with pecan trees, and the ones near water sources are particularly prolific. Some are descendants of the same native pecans that Cabeza de Vaca described 500 years ago. Other varietals were planted over the decades by Austin residents and forgetful squirrels. A healthy pecan tree with a good source of water will begin to bear at 4 years old.

What happens to all those nuts that form in such quantities every other November? For one thing, they provide sustenance for urban wildlife. Along with ubiquitous squirrels and voracious grackles, I often wake to the sound of sustained nocturnal crunching outside, where neighborhood possums and raccoons take turns bellying up to the pecan buffet that Mother Nature so thoughtfully lays out on my deck.

And, in time-honored Texas tradition, many folks painstakingly pick up pecans for personal consumption and holiday treats. Fallen nuts in city parks are free for the taking, but you're not allowed to shake any municipal trees to help them come down. Pecans that land in the street are up for grabs, but it is inadvisable to gather nuts in someone else's yard without asking. Believe me, pecan-tree proprietors might take vigorous exception to poachers.

For the past eight years, Austin resident Jodi Bonner has lived in a Sixties-era neighborhood near Shoal Creek. Her front yard boasts a prodigious pecan tree, from which she and her husband, Virgil McCullough, have harvested never less than 200 lbs. of nuts a season.

In the biannual "pecan years," Bonner picks up nuts several times a day for two or three months. "I can't bear to let them just lie there going to waste – it's food, after all – I guess it's a values thing. We eat pecans in everything: on oatmeal, in rice, and we bake lots of cookies. I mail boxes of pecans to my sister in Louisiana; she picks them out, bags them up, and distributes them to other family members.

"It's kind of backbreaking," Bonner admits. "Two years ago, when we had a particularly spectacular yield, I just sat on the ground and filled up grocery bags with pecans in reach. I'm sort of glad the tree only bears every two years.

"Lots of our neighbors have pecans, too, but they don't pick them up. I think there's a great entrepreneurial opportunity here for somebody – to find out who has pecans that they don't want and put them together with other people who want to pick them up and eat or sell them. What do you think?"

They'll Crack You Up

So, what if you're one of the lucky ones, like Jodi Bonner, who possess an embarrassment of pecan riches? How can you possibly transform grocery bags full of nuts into edible morsels? If you've ever processed even a small quantity of pecans, you understand why Native Americans named them "nuts too hard to be cracked by hand." (And how do you say tedious in Algonquin?)

Well, the Shoal Crest Senior Activity Center (2874 Shoal Crest, 474-5921), part of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, has an answer. Starting in 1983, when an advisory board member donated an old power cracker, volunteer seniors have been busting Austin's nuts for 25 cents a pound.

Today, the nutcracking enterprise is the center's biggest money-producing project and is something of an Austin institution. They have four machines that run seven hours a day, five days a week, from the first of November through the end of February. Literally hundreds of Austinites bring in their pecans for cracking. The center processes a whopping 80,000 lbs. of nuts a season; at 25 cents per pound, this works out to $20,600.

"We have the best volunteers in the world!," asserts Frank Barborak, Shoal Crest Center's supervisor. "We use the proceeds for education, welfare, and comfort items like VCRs, TVs, computers, and new furniture, things that aren't budgeted by the city. And it provides a valuable service to Austin citizens."

I've been taking pecans to the center for several years, and I can attest what a valuable service it is. Be warned that the "Nut House" annex is quite the deafening place, manned by a busy workforce of seniors who run the machines, weigh the bags, track the money, and field the questions.

It's a first-come, first-served operation. Although they'd like to crack your nuts while you wait, usually the demand is such that it's not possible. You leave your bags of nuts labeled with your name and phone number; they'll call you in two or three days. And sure enough, waiting for you are your sacks filled with your very own beautifully cracked pecans, ready for the halves to be removed. Such a deal!

Once pecans have been cracked, the Texas Pecan Growers Association (www.tpga.org) says they will keep for several months when refrigerated and up to two years in the freezer. With proper storage, you can eat pecans at your leisure throughout the year.

So, there you have it. The pecan, the Texas state tree since 1919, has been an integral part of the state's culinary and economic heritage for millennia. You can buy freshly harvested local nuts, you can plant trees in the yard to gather your own, or you can simply head to the parks and alleys of Austin to pick up the pecans just lying there waiting for you. Take some time to participate in this venerable autumn ritual, share some pecans with your loved ones, and be thankful for the bounty. Happy Thanksgiving, y'all. end story

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