This time of year, one of my father’s favorite seasonal songs goes through my head. It was on an old 45-rpm record — a “novelty” comedy tune from pre-politically-correct days by a singer calling himself Yogi Yorgesson crooning in a Scandinavian accent.
Titled “I Yust (sic) Go Nuts at Christmas,” the silly refrain sticks in my mind — mostly because of the “nuts” part. (You can find it on YouTube.) Living in Texas, nuts — specifically pecans – have been the basis of some of my favorite rituals.
One of my fondest childhood memories is the delight of a late fall outing with my Missouri-bred grandmother, crashing through piles of leaves in Brackenridge Park or sometimes even our own backyard, scrounging for the elusive nuts like Easter eggs until we carried paper sacks or buckets home to crack and shell. Forget about sugarplums – in Texas, visions of pecan pie and pralines danced through our heads from October through the new year.
A few years ago, my friend Amy bought a place on the Guadalupe River near Seguin, which was once part of a large pecan orchard. The gathering instinct in me reawakened, and most holiday seasons, Texas pecans I have collected, cracked, shelled and roasted become gifts to friends and family.
As far back as prehistoric times, native tribes gathered pecans. The name itself comes from an Algonquin word meaning, “takes a stone to crack.” Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to sing the nut’s praises. The trees grew wild, especially in the rich riverbank soil. When settlers came, they furnished food and wood.
Thomas Jefferson planted pecan trees at Monticello, Virginia, and shared saplings with George Washington. Three of those are still thriving. In the Lone Star State, Gov. James Hogg requested a pecan tree be planted at the head of his grave, and its nuts distributed to “make Texas a land of trees.”
In 1919, the Legislature named the pecan the State Tree of Texas. In 2001, Gov. Rick Perry signed a resolution making pecans the “Texas State Health Nut.” (Really!)
Quirky but factual — pecans are rich in protein, healthy oils, fiber, iron, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, potassium, vitamins A, B, C and E, and more. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found eating a handful a day lowered cholesterol about as well as leading medications. Pecan pie has more dubious health benefits, but in 2013, it became the official State Pie of Texas, after heated debate on an amendment to bar chocolate from the recipe.
Pecans have been a healthy part of the Texas economy, too. By the 1930s, the nut was responsible for San Antonio’s biggest industry, with some 400 shelling factories and tens of thousands of workers. Producing one-fourth to one-third of the entire national crop, up to 30 million pounds, the Southern Pecan Shelling Co. was the largest. The famous pecan-shellers strike of January 1938 was hailed as the first labor victory for U.S. Tejanos.
The employees’ win was hollow, though, since soon after, machines displaced man. Today, the state’s pecan harvest averages 50 million pounds (lower after this year’s drought). Processing is highly centralized and mechanized, with million-dollar automation capable of cracking up to 1,000 nuts per minute. Only a few small places near San Antonio still buy sacks of pecans from regular folks, and fewer spots will crack them for a small fee.
But still the trees keep on giving, with generations of Texans assembling in yards or parks to gather pecans, and many kitchens redolent with the rich aroma of roasting nuts or baking pies. Long may the tradition live. This holiday season, join me in a hearty toast to all things pecan.