The old man sat with his nutcracker systematically working the lever, cracking, and shelling pecans. About every fifth nut went into his mouth as he worked.
The little girl climbed up on a chair beside him. “Can I crack nuts, too, Grandpa?”
He grinned at her. “Crack or crack and eat?”
Her smile was mischievous. “Both.”
“Well they are mighty good eatin’. I’ll tell you what, since we only have one nut cracker, I’ll crack and you can help me eat.” He set another nut in the cracker, pulled the lever, separated the shell from the nut inside and handed it to her. These are good Pawnee pecans. They’re big and have a nice buttery flavor.”
“Pawnee? That’s the name of a Native American tribe, right.”
“Yep. Almost seventy years ago a fellow named H.L. Crane suggested namin’ the different kinds of pecans after the native tribes in pecan growing territory. So we’ve got Comanche, Cherokee, Choctaw, and a bunch more pecan varieties—each a little bit different. The name pecan is an Algonquin word that translates—more or less—to “a nut requiring a stone to crack its shell.
“We call the original Texas pecan the ‘native’ variety. Pecans been growin’ in Texas a long time. Back in the 1500s, Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote that the native people he met ate pecans. But pecans go back even further than that. Fossilized pecans found along the Rio Grande River are estimated to be 65 million years old.” He handed her another nut and popped one in his mouth.
“There are wild pecan trees and planted pecan orchards across most of Texas, ‘specially in the Hill Country. Some of the wild trees are 200 years old. Did you know, pecan trees can grow to 120 feet tall and measure four feet across?”
“Wow! That’s a humungous tree. You’d need a tall ladder to pick the nuts.”
“Well, nowadays, pickin’ is mechanical. A big machine puts its metal arms around a tree’s trunk and gives it a big shake for about a minute. The ripe pecans just fall to the ground. Some growers catch them on special sheets, others sweep ‘em up with mechanical sweepers.”
“We have lots of pecan trees around here.” She pulled a shelled nut from the growing pile.”There are even two in our front yard. But the squirrels beat us to most of the pecans.”
“Yep. Little rascals. We’re mighty lucky to live in the Texas hill country, especially in San Saba.”
“Because there are so many pecan trees?”
“That’s part of it. San Saba is known as the ‘Pecan Capital of the World’ and San Saba is the home of the ‘Mother Pecan Tree.’”
“Pecan trees have a mother?”
“Well, the folks at Texas A&M over in College Station tell the story of E.E. Risien. He was an Englishman who moved to Texas in 1874 and spent his life growing pecan trees near where the Colorado and San Saba Rivers meet. He gathered male pecan blossoms from pecan trees all over the area. Then, placed the pollen on the female blossoms of a special tree to create new varieties. His special tree gets the credit for creating many, many different pecan varieties—that tree is the ‘Big Mama’ of the pecan business.
“People liked his pecans. Customers from all over the world bought them. Queen Victoria and Alfred Lord Tennyson in Great Britain ordered his pecans. The Post Cereal Co. was another customer.
“By 1904, Texas had really grown and so many pecan trees had been cut down to make way for cotton crops or for use in building wagons, farm implements, and furniture, that the number of pecan trees was gettin’ thin. But in 1906, an interesting thing happened.
“Texas Governor James Hogg and his daughter visited Hogg’s law partner in Houston. That night, Governor Hogg commented that when he died he did not want a stone monument at his grave. Instead he said, ‘Let my children plant at the head of my grave a pecan tree and at my feet an old walnut tree. And when these trees shall bear, let the pecans and walnuts be given out among the plain people so that they may plant them and make Texas a land of trees.’ Doggone if he didn’t die the next day, and his wishes were followed. Sure enough,Texans took the nuts, planted ’em, and before long, pecan and walnut trees popped up all over the state. By 1919 the pecan tree was voted the Texas State Tree. Couple of years ago, Texans harvested more than forty-five million pounds of in-shell pecans to be sold. Guess we could say, Governor Hogg saved the Texas pecan.”
“That’s the same Governor who named his daughters Ima Hogg and Yura Hogg?”
“No. Don’t you fall for that old joke, honey. There was no daughter named Yura Hogg. Ima Hogg was named after a poem written by Governor Hogg’s brother. A nice gesture which created an unusual—some might say unfortunate—first and last name combination. Anyway, 63 years later the original trees at Hogg’s grave were replaced with new ones. Far as I know they’re still producing nuts.”
“Okay, Grandad, I have a new friend in school from Georgia. She says we should say ‘Peee-can, not pecan.”
“Nonsense! Now, don’t you dare tell your Mama or Grandma I told you this, but a Peee-can is what you pee in, a pecan is what you eat.”
The little girl giggled and pulled two more pecans from the pile.
The old man said, “Now let’s get these pecans to the kitchen. Grandma wants to bake a pecan pie for tonight’s dessert.”
As they scooped the pecans into a clean bowl, the little girl asked, “May I please stay for dinner?”
“Nothing your grandma and I’d like better, sweetheart. I’ll call your mom.”
NOTE: If you are a pecan fan, remember to keep your Texas pecans in a sealed container in the the refrigerator, or for up to two years in the freezer. You can pull them out of the freezer for immediate use. My favorite way to eat them? Toast them gently in a skillet with butter. Stir constantly, they’ll scorch fast. Salt them liberally and dry them on paper towels. Make a bunch because they will be consumed fast! And for your own sake, don’t call ‘em Pee-cans! You might get run out of the state.
If you plan a trip to San Saba, the pecan capital of the world, be sure to visit Risien Park a lovely setting with lots of pecan trees!
This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with Texas Brave and Strong—The best little podcast in Texas. If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe for a notification when a new twice-monthly podcast is posted. Thanks for listening—Ya’ll come back.
Laurie is the author of the historical Texas-based novel GONE TO DALLAS, the Storekeeper 1856-1861. Available on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and Ingram Spark.