The Food of November: Pecans

On many a November day, along tree lined roadsides and across orchard-clothed flatlands, you may see people of all ages engaging in a particular rite of autumn. Each man, each woman, each grandparent or child gazes at the grounds, bends over and picks up a handful of brown ovoid nuts and places them in whatever they manage to utilize to carry such a bounty. It is time for the pecan harvest.

Last year an estimated 2.6 million pecans were harvested from orchards around the Natural State. With prices running around $3 a pound, pecans are big business.

Pecans are native to Arkansas. They were highly valued by Native Americans, who traded and consumed them. Spanish explorers thought they were another sort of walnut and called them nueces, or “fruit of the walnut.” They’re a great source of protein, and somewhat easier to crack than walnuts.

When I was a little girl, the weekend before Thanksgiving was a common time to pick pecans. You don’t pick them off the trees; instead, you get yourself some sort of container or sack and go walking out where the trees are and pick up all you can before your back gives out. My cousins and I would pick up all we could, shoving the nuts into potato sacks or grocery sacks, until we’d either give out or it got dark. The evenings we’d spend with a set of nutcrackers, carefully popping open each shell and extracting the soft part inside. That’d go to whoever was making pies – because there was ALWAYS pie at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, usually a Karo-nut pie. We’d also eat our share. You learned quickly to examine the nuts before you ate them, because those little woody bits in the center that held the shell together are bitter.

Pecan trees are common across the state, and you’ll see them here and there. I even have one in my backyard, though the squirrels seem to reap the bounty the tree offers before the nuts hit the ground. There is a stretch of highway near Scott where pecan trees line either side of the road, offering a shady tunnel during the summer and a stark reminder of winter’s arrival each December. To get to this pretty place, take 161 south from where it splits off from Highway 167 by the Plantation Agriculture Museum.

As I mentioned, pecan pies are a big tradition in my family. We have our own pecan pie recipe, as many families do. While criss-crossing the state, I have discovered many other pie varieties that focus on the pecan. Of note: the PCP (Pineapple, Coconut and Pecan) pie at Ed and Kay’s Restaurant in Benton; Nana Deane’s Coconut Pecan Pie at Ray’s Dairy Maid in Barton and the Bourbon Chocolate Chunk Pecan pie at Greenhouse Grille in Fayetteville. The Backyard Bar-B-Que Company in Magnolia and the Red Rooster Bistro in Alma both make a marvelous rendition of pecan cream cheese pie, and Ms. Rhoda Adams still makes the traditional version in miniature pie pans down at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village. Some places, like Skinny J’s in Jonesboro and Grandpa’s Catfish in Cabot even serve up fried pecan pies.

Pecans can be found in sweet potato casseroles, mixed into the cranberry relish and even included in a good cornmeal dressing. What better food to celebrate during November?

Kat Robinson is the communications manager for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism's tourism division. She is a lifelong Arkansawyer with years of residency in Little Rock, Russellville and Jonesboro.

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