Pecan trees (Carya illinoinensis) are a species of hickory tree. Historically, they were commonly found in the Mississippi Valley, Texas, and parts of Mexico. Native Americans had gathered, processed, stored, and eaten pecans for at least 8,750 years. Pecans were an important food for American Indians, especially from December through April when other food sources were unavailable.
Unlike hickory nuts, pecans are sweeter and easier to eat. French colonists in New Orleans ate pecans and integrated them into their cookery, such as in making pralines and cakes. Americans first ran into pecans during the French and Indian War (1754–1763), when the American militia campaigned in what is today the Midwest. Gardeners planted nuts from this tree, and by the end of the 18th century they were grown throughout the United States but flourished in the South, particularly Georgia and Texas.
A flourishing trade in pecan nuts emerged after the Civil War. By 1867, the nuts were sold in New York markets from December through April. Improved pecan varieties were developed, and pecans were exhibited at many national and international fairs, including the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The popularity of pecans skyrocketed. Cookbooks began including pecan recipes, such as for pecan pie.
About 75 percent of the commercial pecans were sold as salted nut meats (whole kernels, halves, and pieces), supplied to restaurants and hotels, and sold for home consumption. Small pecan pieces were mainly used by confectioners to top candies such as sugar drops and chocolate balls, and pecans were very popular coated with sugar or dipped in chocolate. Pecans continue to be eaten in a variety of ways. Several commercial pastries and candies are made with pecans. Interstate Brands Corporation introduced a breakfast pastry called Pecan Rollers, which are manufactured by Hostess Brands today. The Standard Candy Company of Nashville, Tennessee, which has made Goo Goo Clusters (peanuts, caramel, and marshmallow covered with chocolate) for 100 years, introduced the Goo Goo Supreme, made with pecans instead of peanuts, in the early 1980s. And, of course, most ice cream companies have butter pecan as a selection. A number of firms, many of them in Texas and Louisiana, offer mail-order pecans in various forms as well as pecan pralines, divinity, fruitcake, cheesecake, brittle, and other specialties. Pecan cookery is alive and well in the 21st century.
Of hundreds of foods that originated in North America and were consumed in pre-Columbian times, few have any commercial use today. The pecan is the only nut that survived from this period and remains an important commercial product. The United States produces the largest quantity (more than 80 percent) of the world's pecan nuts, followed by Mexico and now South Africa and Australia. Historically, Canada was the largest export market for the United States. China began to import pecans in 2004, and by 2009 that country was purchasing 25 percent of the entire U.S. pecan crop.
See also American Indian Food; Hickory Nuts; Nuts; Document 99
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