Do you really think pecans come from the grocery store? And….. that’s it?
It’s November in Mississippi and my pecan trees have been torn to shreds. The squirrels are fat and happy, and I can’t walk to the car without picking up a few. This year, we’re rich…… with pecans.
Hey, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Grandparents had a farm in western Illinois so I wasn’t an idiot when it came to cows/chickens leading to milk/eggs. Mom’s parents even had an apple orchard and when the apples came in, it was all hands on deck. I remember well. But pecans…….. that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Curl up for a minute and grab a cup of coffee.
My formal education about pecans started when Dad’s parents moved to Mississippi. Grandpa was part of a three-man team that located a large furniture manufacturer in our town in the early ’60s. He ended up as the VP of Operations of the plant, which employed thousands in a sleepy little town just south of Memphis. The plant was set back from the road about a half-mile. Grand entrance, with an enormous parking lot to the right. Succumbing to the locals’ suggestion, Grandpa planted three rows of pecan trees on each side of the long drive into the plant. That was 1961. As the years passed, the entrance became a full-blown pecan grove. By the time I worked there in the early 80s, the trees were mature enough to provide gorgeous arching dappled shade, perfect for company picnics.
And Grandpa treated those pecan trees like the Faberge Eggs of Pecan Trees.
The trees were sprayed once a yr for a borer worm, they were fertilized and trimmed, and if an errant leaf or branch looked astray or……….. God forbid………. fell to the ground………. the maintenance staff immediately cleared the field.
Which beget an enormous and years-long argument at the plant between maintenance/the hourly workers/and office staff. You might ask, why would this cause such a fuss? After all, everyone wants a clean and well-kept facility, right?
But these were pecans.
And as every southern woman knows, pecans are expensive. And as every southern man knows, a pecan pie for Thanksgiving is an absolute must. I mean, in the south, generations of women have familial wars over who makes the best pecan pie for Thanksgiving. And the fight for pecans when the trees bear fruit is a vicious battle.
So it was at Grandpa’s plant. The maintenance staff had first dibs on the pecans and the office staff and other workers were jealous. EVERYONE wanted those pecans. Grandpa settled the controversy by opening the plant on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons to employees who wanted to pick up pecans. During the months of November-December, at least 50-100 cars would be there. People had sacks in hand, or trusty gadgets to snatch pecans from the ground without bending over.
As Grandma and Grandpa eased into the southern culture from the midwest, my family made the trek from Chicago to visit for a week of Thanksgiving holidays. I may have been 7yrs old, at least old enough to remember it.
On Grandma’s kitchen table was a large wooden bowl of pecans, and then to the side, several contraptions capable of pulling teeth and far more suitable to a dentist. I thought it was merely a “harvest” decoration, made some comment to Grandma on how “authentic” it was……… and she just about took my head off. Because of course, from my own point of view, when you live in the ‘burbs……… Pecans come from the Grocery Store.
All week long, after dinner, Grandpa would settle into his favorite couch for a movie……. a lot of football, and shell pecans. By day 2, my Dad was shelling pecans as well. I chipped on the effort and felt proud when we finished ALL the pecans from the large wooden bowl. I thought we were finished. Oh no. Grandpa went out to the garage and returned with a black plastic 5-gallon garden bucket………. filled to the brim with more pecans to shell. As we left to run errands the next day, I checked the garage………… at least a dozen buckets of pecans to shell. I couldn’t believe it! Yet, on the way to the grocery store, we passed the plant. A veritable sea of people scoured the ground……. to pick up pecans.
We had TWO pecan pies for Thanksgiving that year. Yeah, shelling the pecans was worth it. They were delicious.
When we left to go home, Grandma gave mom, two “Wonder Bread” bags of pecans to take back to Illinois. Mom was extremely grateful. I was starting to think pecans were worth their weight in gold. BUT – for the next few months, all our chocolate chip cookies had pecans in them……
As I grew up, moved to Manhattan and Miami, every time I returned home, Grandma “allowed” me to take some of her pecan stash back to my own kitchen. Psychosomatic sure, but everything I made with those pecans tasted better because I understood the long process of shelling pecans.
When I returned to Mississippi after leaving the brokerage firm, we bought the big house, which HAD 9 pecan trees, and 4 of them were in the “near back” and not the open field in the “way back”. The trees are at least 100yrs old……….. enormous trees. I was thrilled but knew they had to be taken care of to live, produce, ………… and I wanted to be like Grandpa.
Yet, I didn’t need to do anything. Didn’t need to. My husband was obsessed with the pecan trees. Since no one lived here for 23yrs and we gutted the house, he had a feeling the trees had been neglected. County extension officials came in to test the soil and offer their professional opinion. I shook my head in wonderment. One day, husband CASUALLY mentioned a guy was coming by with a tractor to spread chelated iron………….. cause it would be good for the soil and the pecan trees would thrive.
Well, the guy came.
And it really wasn’t his fault. Husband was advised the yard needed chelated iron for proper acidity. They calculated the amount needed and there were quite a few zeros in the number…… I raised an eyebrow but husband assured me the math was right.
The math wasn’t the problem.
The guy spread the chelated iron…. the Black Dust. He drove around and around in our near back yard until I could not see him. Pretty soon, it blocked out the sun. The dust seeped into cracks in the house. Settled on every nook and cranny of our spectacular white house (we had to wash the house/grill driveway/windows……. everything afterwards). It seeped into the windows. We couldn’t go outside.
I called my husband and blew a fuse. He was here within 10 minutes……. but it was too late. Over 3 tons of chelated iron were spread……… in our NEAR back yard…… instead of spreading it over the entire three acres.
You can’t imagine the pecans I had the following year.
It’s true, the difference in fresh pecans is amazing. Grocery store pecans are dry and shriveled. Taste like chalk. Fresh pecans are big and fat…….. taste is robust.
I didn’t get ANY pecans that first year because we were too busy for me to pick them up. Yet, my Mother-in-law was in my back yard scarfing my pecans EVERY day. Grandma Della was furious. She was stealing our pecans. Every now and then she would give me a pint size bag of them……… when she was feeling generous.
Flash forward again.
The year we started the backyard project we had a bumper crop of pecans, and we were outside all the time anyway. We picked up pecans daily. The 5 gallon buckets took over the utility room. A friend told us about a machine in a neighboring town which woudl crack the pecans almost perfectly for $.25/lb. It was worth a try. We went to visit – three times with full loads.
600lbs of pecans, and almost completely shelled already. Wow. Stuffed one entire freezer in the game room with our treasure. Big T was thrilled. He was looking at the pecans like a commodity broker.
But then came Thanksgiving, and the pecan pies, and the cookies……….. definietely worth every minute of effort.
Now, it is November again. We have plenty of pecans. I’ve half-heartedly picked them up and cracked them by hand, using a pecan cracker which is definitely Pre- WW2, made by the Daisy Company out of St Louis. A nuclear explosion couldn’t destroy this pecan cracker….. but it still works like a charm.
I had a big bowl of the pecans and the cracker on a coffee table in my bedroom. Crack some when I have a few minutes. The other day, my son wandered into the bedroom to ask me something and zeroed in on the pecans. He looked at me and said, “If I crack this whole bowl of pecans…. will you make a Pecan Pie for Thanksgiving?”
See there, nothing really changes.