The Rambling Boy: Texas Pecans
November in Texas is the month for pecans.
When I was a boy, my father would always order a big sack of pecans in the shell around the first week in November and spend his evenings shelling them in order to have pecans for the Christmas pralines he made each year (the only time I ever saw him in the kitchen). He loved gadgets, and over the years he accumulated a large collection of pecan crackers, some of them formidable machines with levers and sliding, weighted parts that could pulverize a nut, or your finger if you were careless.
The talent of his that I admired most was his ability to crack two pecans together in his fist and then peel the shells off each to provide the perfect mid-morning snack. I learned to do that, and the year that we lived in Virginia my 10-year-old boy’s pockets were full of pecans in November. They were my certification that I was still a Texan, even though living in the East.
The pecan, Carya illinoinensis, is a tree that is native only to North America and is especially prolific in northern Mexico and the southeastern and south-central regions of the United States. The Spanish explorers of Mexico, Texas and Louisiana called them “nueces de la arruga,” wrinkle nuts, and took them to Spain and to their colonies in Asia and Africa.
They were not grown commercially in the United States until the 1880s. Today most of the U.S. crop is produced in Georgia, New Mexico and Texas. Mexico is the other major pecan grower, and together the two countries produce 93 percent of the world’s crop.
If you want to see a really big pecan, there is one on the town square of Seguin that is five feet long and weighs 1,000 pounds. It is made out of cement and was created in 1962 by some local pecan growers.
I had a brush with the commercial pecan business in the late 1960s when I married a woman who had inherited a large pecan orchard south of San Antonio in the Medina Valley Irrigation District, a network of canals radiating from Medina Lake. Her grandfather had planted the trees, 500 acres of them, in the 1920s after making a good deal of money in the Tampico oil boom.
His plan was to subdivide his land into 40-acre orchards and sell them to former associates from Tampico, which he did, but then the Depression came along. Most of the purchasers went bankrupt and could not pay for the land they had bought, which he had financed, so he ended up with most of the trees back, much to his displeasure because he did not want to be in the pecan business.
When my wife and I married, we had a romantic idea of restoring the orchards and becoming commercial pecan growers, sitting on the porch of the ranch house listening to the windmill creaking, effortlessly raking in the dollars. We joined the Texas Pecan Growers Association, bought an orchard tractor, and had a series of conversations with an exceptionally nice man named Bluefford Hancock, who was the pecan specialist for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
Unforeseen obstacles appeared. The trees had been neglected for years and had more diseases than we could possibly have imagined. We needed more capital equipment than we could afford, including a sprayer, a mechanical tree-shaker and a flatbed trailer. We both had jobs in Austin, and the work required on the trees was more than could be done on weekends.
My wife’s grandfather had been fascinated with experimental horticulture and had planted varieties of trees that no one had heard of in 50 years and whose nuts were unsellable because they would not fit in modern pecan shelling machinery (when the trees were planted, pecans were shelled by hand; in 1930 16,000 people, mostly Mexican immigrants, were employed in San Antonio shelling pecans with hammers and iron picks).
It turned out that we had a veritable pecan museum. Bluefford Hancock loved to visit our orchard because we had varieties of nuts he had only read about: Texas Prolific, Squirrel’s Delight, Moneymaker, Mahan, John Garner, Success. My favorite was a pecan about the size of the top of your thumb called Nugget; it had the sweetest meat I had ever tasted. If we could have figured out a way to shell them mechanically, we could have made a fortune selling them to candy companies.
In the long run we gave up on our restoration project and sold the pecans on the trees to a man in San Antonio named Bagley, who had the only 1930 Model AA Ford half-ton truck I have ever seen in use. Mr. Bagley brought a crew down from San Antonio who moved into the bunkhouse and spent a couple of weeks shaking the pecans off the trees with a mechanical shaker built onto the chassis of an old pickup truck, a device like a giant pair of pliers padded with inner tubes that gripped each tree around the trunk and vibrated it until pecans rained down into a canvas tent spread under it. At the end of the two weeks, we were given a check for about a fifth of the amount that we estimated we would have received if we had been able to harvest the nuts ourselves.
The only substantial things that came out of our pecan venture were a short story, never published, in which the principal character, a taciturn country man called T. P., is revealed to actually be named Texas Prolific, and a trip to Boston to sell pecans out of the bed of a pickup on Harvard Square. My wife had done her undergraduate work at Radcliffe, where she had been known to some of her fellow students as the Pecan Queen of Texas, and she was anxious to revisit her alma mater.
We decided to finance the trip by selling one-pound bags of our own pecans in the shell. We arrived in Boston on a Saturday morning, drove straight to Harvard Square and set up shop. You can imagine my wife’s surprise and delight when one of her former classics professors, Sterling Dow, walked by and said, “If it isn’t the Pecan Queen of Texas.”
He graciously invited us to his house on Brattle Street that afternoon for tea. It was a cold, wet fall afternoon, and when we got there he offered me my choice of tea or whiskey, which he referred to as “cowboy juice.” That afternoon in front of Sterling Dow’s fireplace made the whole trip worthwhile.
The Rambling Boy: Texas Pecans
by Lonn Taylor
photos copyright www.123rf.com
This piece first appeared in the Marfa-Big Bend Sentinel on Nov. 16, 2017.