Southern Nuts

Take a moment and envision what you consider to be classic Southern settings. I suspect you’ll come up with the cresting Atlantic, sand dunes, and sea oats. Go ahead and imagine a painted bunting clinging to a sea oat stalk. Swaying in the breeze that bird serves up a brilliant burst of feathery color that perfects this vintage Southern scene.

Some of you may summon up a ridge of blue, smoky mountains, a pocket of fog nestled in a deepening valley. Why not place a setting sun between two peaks to create a view worthy of a postcard.

Now some of you will envision twin rows of live oaks draped with Spanish moss perfectly framing a white antebellum home. Add a white fence and chestnut horse to the scene and you have the quintessential South.

(Photo by Tom Gill (lapstrake) / Creative Commons)

All these scenes are magnificent Southern settings, but one classic Southern vista is missing. Thanks to a long drive I made in October to Colquitt, Georgia, I found yet another engaging Southern scene. I submit for your consideration majestic, moss-draped pecan orchards.

Now the orchards in south Georgia are no ordinary orchards. They are vast, their trees are huge in height and girth, and the orchards stretch on mile after mile. They command the eye. They just make you want to pull over and stare.

All this orchard business is remarkable because I grew up seeing a pecan orchard every day of my life. Down on the Augusta Highway across from the family land stands an aging pecan orchard that has long been favored by area crows and squirrels. It’s their Publix. I know nothing of its history, nothing about who planted it, but it has long stood there, a quiet reminder of man’s efforts to live off the land.

Now I readily admit that pecan orchards and pecans are seldom on my mind. Come the holidays, however, that changes. My Mom makes the best pecan pies I’ve ever tasted. (There’s a closely guarded secret as to how she makes these irresistible pies!) Thanksgiving and Christmas just aren’t the same without her pies. I could eat an entire pie. I don’t, but I could. Well, one day she sent me home to Columbia with half a pie … it was gone before I reached the Aiken exit.

The pecan pie is a Southern tradition, a rich, round, sugared icon filled with happiness, good times, and good memories. It’s such a tradition that the October/November issue of Garden & Gun magazine features a bird’s eye view of a pristine pecan pie on its cover. Yet to see a knife or fork, that pie is there for the taking. That says a lot when you consider this issue of the magazine is devoted to the best 50 Southern foods, a variety ranging from sweets to sides, seafood, meats, and more.

With such a love for Mom’s pies you’d think I know all about pecans. Well, I don’t, and maybe you could stand some learning too about all things pecan. South Georgia is a nutty place! While looking at all those stately pecan orchards down in Dougherty and Mitchell Counties I made a mental note to do something about my pecan ignorance.

Let’s start with the pronunciation of pecan. How do you pronounce the name of this delectable tree nut? Is it pe-can or pe-cahn? I have a friend whose dad grew up in Mississippi. He favored pe-cahn. “A pecan,” he said, “is something you keep beneath the bed at night.” A fellow over this way, across the Savannah, works in the pecan business. He said, “You buy a pe-can and sell a pe-cahn.”

However you pronounce it, historically, Georgia leads the nation in producing pecans, followed by Texas and, surprisingly, New Mexico. The fact that Georgia leads the nation jumps out at you when you realize that Georgia farmers didn’t recognize the pecan’s potential until the 1950s.

In the late 1800s landowners near Savannah began growing and selling pecans. A pecan boom took hold around 1910 and landowners in southwest Georgia began planting thousands of acres of pecans. At first, planting all these pecans trees was not an agricultural effort. No, it fell into the category of real estate enterprises down in Dougherty and Mitchell Counties. A lot of five-to-10-acre pecan parcels were sold as home sites and small farms. Now I know how all those beautiful groves came to be.

As I drove by orchard after orchard I began to notice a similarity to man and his aging process. I saw young trees, planted not too long ago, and I saw stands of pecan trees in their prime, straight with a full crown and park-like grassy lawns beneath them. And then I began to come across aged orchards, neglected, in need of pruning, with shrubs, weeds, and bushes growing right up to their trunks. Some trees had fallen, some had lost limbs, and some were forlorn snags. Dead as the proverbial door nail.

From whence does this magical tree come? The Georgia Pecan Growers Association says pecans are the only native American tree nut. Other learned sources say the archaeological and historical evidence holds that the tree came here around 10,000 B.C. from Asia before humans cross the Bering Strait land bridge. How it got here is not explained. Most sources I researched say the pecan tree is a native tree. That works for me. As far as I’m concerned, pecan trees are native and as beautiful as sea oats, rocky, green mountains, and live oaks draped in Spanish moss.

If you think live oaks are far more beautiful than pecan trees do yourself a favor. Drive through south Georgia just before sundown when the sun comes in so low the flickering light makes driving a chore. Pull over onto the shoulder and watch the light filter through a vibrant, well-planned pecan orchard cloaked in Spanish moss. I guarantee you it holds it own against the live oak. Besides, when is the last time you tasted an acorn pie? Only the pecan releases that wonderful buttery flavor we love so much. Of course, that flavor comes with a price.

A two-pound tin of butter roasted and salted pecans costs $26. A 14-ounce tub of natural pecan halves runs $13. People complain about the cost, but it helps to know that a lot of careful work goes into this delectable Southern treat.

Pecan orchards are considered high-management crops. From planting to growth, to cleaning and shelling a lot of man-hours are required. Once shelled the pecan halves need to dry. When it comes to costs, there’s the time factor to consider too. A pecan tree takes about 10 years to produce a nut. That’s a decade of no income. Fortunately, a pecan tree can live up to 300 years old, creating a living heirloom for the farmer’s descendants.

To live a long productive life a tree needs a lot of attention: fertilizing, trimming in the winter, caring for the grounds, addressing storm damage, worrying about pests and diseases and heading them off. And then there’s buying all that equipment, things like the shaker. This tractor-powered machine grabs the tree’s trunk and shakes it for about 10 seconds. Down come leaves, dead limbs, and a lot of pecans.

Okay, let’s be honest. Technically, the pecan is not a nut. No, it is a drupe, a fruit with a single pit surrounded by a husk. But I’ll stick with nut. That old saying, “Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t,” works so much better than “Sometimes you feel like a drupe; sometimes you don’t.”

Sometimes I feel like pecan pie. Especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This holiday season when I enjoy Mom’s pecan pie with a hot cup of coffee, I’ll be thinking of south Georgia and all those beautiful pecan orchards. Perhaps the pecans I’m savoring came from an orchard I saw just off Highway 300 somewhere in Mitchell County. Perhaps I saw the very orchard next year’s pies will come from. If I did, well that is one happy coincidence. One year the pecans trees delight my eyes, the next year they delight my taste buds.

I should add that pecans make a healthy treat. Rich in natural anti-oxidants, they are chock full of vitamins and minerals and good for the heart. These bite-size Southern charms taste good just about any way you eat them. No matter how you pronounce pecan, it’s one delicious drupe … excuse me, nut.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]