What would Thanksgiving be without pecan pie? New Orleans without pecan pralines? Southern cooks would have to hang up their aprons without America’s native nut, whose popularity has spread far beyond the tree’s natural home. But as familiar as the pecan is, most people don’t know the fascinating story of how native pecan trees fed Americans for thousands of years until the nut was “improved” a little more than a century ago—and why that rapid domestication actually threatens the pecan’s long-term future.
In The Pecan, acclaimed writer and historian James McWilliams explores the history of America’s most important commercial nut. He describes how essential the pecan was for Native Americans—by some calculations, an average pecan harvest had the food value of nearly 150,000 bison. McWilliams explains that, because of its natural edibility, abundance, and ease of harvesting, the pecan was left in its natural state longer than any other commercial fruit or nut crop in America. Yet once the process of “improvement” began, it took less than a century for the pecan to be almost totally domesticated. Today, more than 300 million pounds of pecans are produced every year in the United States—and as much as half of that total might be exported to China, which has fallen in love with America’s native nut. McWilliams also warns that, as ubiquitous as the pecan has become, it is vulnerable to a “perfect storm” of economic threats and ecological disasters that could wipe it out within a generation. This lively history suggests why the pecan deserves to be recognized as a true American heirloom.
Introduction: Cracking the Nut
Chapter 1. The Native Americans' Nut
Chapter 2. "Pekan Nuttrees": Europeans Encounter the Pecan
Chapter 3. ". . . the Forest into an Orchard": Passive Cultivation on the Texas Frontier
Chapter 4. Antoine's Graft: The Birth of the Improved Pecan, 1822–1900
Chapter 5. "To Make These Little Trees": The Culture of Pecan Improvement, 1900–1925
Chapter 6. "Pecans for the World": The Pecan Goes Industrial, 1920–1945
Chapter 7. "In Almost Any Recipe . . . Pecans May Be Used": American Consumers Embrace the Pecan, 1940–1960
Chapter 8. "China Wants Our Nuts": The Pecan Goes Global
Epilogue. The Future of Pecans
James McWilliams is Professor of History at Texas State University. He is a frequent contributor to the Atlantic, Texas Observer, the New York Times, and other publications.
“This excellent and charming story describes a tree that endured numerous hardships to become not only a staple of Southern cuisine but an American treasure.”
—Ann Wilberton, Pace University Library, New York, Library Journal
“McWilliams is a terrific writer, and this book is a thought-provoking exploration not just of an often-overlooked nut, but of human nutrition itself. Every eater should read The Pecan.”
—David Owen, staff writer for the New Yorker
“A charming and revealing synthesis of how pecans emerged as the most important native tree crop in the American economy. Always thoughtful, McWilliams’ writing in this little gem will teach a thing or two to locavores and export agriculturists alike.”
—Gary Paul Nabhan, Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems, University of Arizona, and author of Desert Terroir: Exploring the Unique Flavors and Sundry Places of the Borderlands
“A fascinating and informative journey . . . that really makes you respect the pecan when it comes time to put it on the plate.”
—Sean Brock, James Beard Award-winning chef
“McWilliams’s previous writing embraces food and agriculture from a deliciously human point of view. Here, spurred by a personal interest in the pecan tree in his own yard, he pays homage to a subject of particular interest (and pleasure) to Texans.”
—Texas Books in Review
“Historian and writer James McWilliams proves an expert guide to the history of ‘America’s most economically significant tree.'”
This lively history by the acclaimed author of Just Food and A Revolution in Eating follows the pecan from primordial Southern groves to the contemporary Chinese marketplace to reveal how a nut with a very limited natural range has become a global commodity and endangered heirloom.
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