You’re sitting in the afterglow of a Thanksgiving meal in Texas. Maybe you took off work, maybe you have to clock in today. Either way, two things are certain — you’re being digitally ambushed by “can’t miss” shopping deals and you’re eating leftovers.
First order of business, peeling back the foil to cut a piece of grandma’s pecan pie.
While now it seems to be a second-nature staple, there’s a reason why pecan pie is a holiday favorite in Texas and across the South. The season pecan trees are most ripe for harvest coincides with the fall and winter, usually November through January. Due to its accessibility, it is easy to see how the nut would become a longstanding fixture on the dining table.
“A lot of people get very excited about pecans. In the Thanksgiving and Christmas time people get excited because historically people in the South have harvested pecans because they’re available that time of year and and use them in Thanksgiving and Christmas foods,” says Troy Swift, who has been operating a pecan farming business for over 20 years at Swift River Pecans in Fentress, Texas.
The native pecan tree belt, extending from northern Mexico to the Mississippi River region, has been producing the meaty nut for thousands of years. While their structure isn’t conducive to being preserved in the archaeological record, scientists have found remnants in places like Baker Cave , near Del Rio, that date them as a 5,000-year-old continuous human food source, an essential component to the diets of indigenous people in the region.
Groups from the Tap Pilam, Coahuiltecan, Karankawa and Apache were the first people that learned how to prepare food with pecans in Texas. Their descendants still live in the area today.
Pecans naturally grow all over the southern United States. Several of these states, including Texas, claim the pecan as the state health nut. Texas loves pecans so much, we also named the pecan tree our state tree in 1919.
There’s a lot to be learned from cracking the history of the pecan in state of Texas, which happens to be the third largest producer of commercial pecans in the world.
Adan Medrano is a San Antonio-based chef and author of Truly Texas Mexican which was recently adapted into a film. He specializes in native foods. Through his practice, he perceives the state nut through a multifaceted lens that touches on their role in labor history as well as their unique biological attributes. He has also developed a mean recipe for a pecan pie made with bourbon, which derives from corn — another significant native food.
“When I think of pecans, three three things come to mind. Delicious is one. Justice is another. And the third is mystery.”
Medrano, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, naturally considers the sweet and satisfying taste of the nut. But as a San Antonian of Indigenous descent, he can’t help but be reminded of Emma Tenayuca, who led a series of strikes while working under oppressive labor conditions alongside many other Mexican-American workers at a pecan-shelling factory in the city.
“That’s a lovely, beautiful, powerful side of the pecan, the justice that Emma Tenayuca signifies,” says Medrano.
The chef also expresses wonderment at the phenomena of “masting” in which some wild nut producing trees irregularly shed their fruit as a means of “starving” predator populations so they don’t succumb to disease or risk being overrun. In order to do this, nearby trees shedding at the same time must be able to remarkably communicate with one another. Scientists speculate this is done through a combination of chemical signals, through underground root and fungal connections and weather cues, though they don’t know for certain.
“These trees are living mysterious beings that are like us, you know, living on this land as we are. So I find that very, very interesting. It’s an insight from our ancestors, to respect them as living entities, the same as we are living entities on this planet.”
Swift also has a reverence for the nut. He currently oversees about a 1,000 trees spanning 14 varieties, including native pecan’s growing along the San Marcos River.
At Swift River, he and his small team work year-round harvesting, pruning, and protecting the trees and maintaining his 226-acre ranch. The soil has to be monitored and irrigated, and periodically restored, through regenerative agriculture practices. Once the nuts are collected they are also shelled and bagged for sale.
He tells me the best way to store pecans (freeze them) and to always seek out the lighter colored nuts (those have the best flavor). The Swift River facility also moonlights as a lumber yard. Whenever an old tree falls, they will slice up the sought-after wood and put it on the market. You can buy all his products online , at the ranch, or at the Pearl Farmer’s Market.
As we spoke, his wife, Athanasee, was cooking up a pecan pie for Thanksgiving, a treat the pecan farmers don’t indulge in nearly as often as you’d expect. Swift does mention, however, that he does snack on the nutrient-packed pecans on a daily basis.
It’s a nutty occupational benefit.
While he loves being out in nature with the trees and enjoying the fruit of his labor, what impresses him most about the job pecan’s long-standing history with the land.
“The native pecan tree and the river bottoms of Central Texas, and South Texas, are truly Texas history,” says Swift, who explains that some of the native trees have been around for 250 to 300 years.
Impressively, these trees have fed passerby of all stripes since the 1700s, from Indigenous groups to Texas Revolutionaries.
It’s clear that the significance of the Texas State Nut extends beyond its place on the dessert table. What we have in pecan trees is undeniably special. As witnesses to our history, they provide us with a beautiful cultural and environmental understanding.
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