In Texas, pecans are a Big Deal. The trees are native to the state, and according the archaeological record, they’ve been here since long before humans arrived. When people did arrive, they glommed onto the nuts right away as an excellent source of essential vitamins (19 of them, in fact), fats, and proteins. Comanches and other American Indians considered the nuts a dietary staple, combining pecans with fruits and other nuts to make a sort of “trail mix.” They also used pecan milk to make an energy drink and thickened stews and soups with the ground meat. Most Indians carried stores of the nuts with them when they traveled long distances, because pecans would sustain them when no other food sources were available.
An individual Texas pecan tree may live for more than 1,000 years. Some grow to more than 100 feet tall.
Pecans have been an important agricultural product in Texas since the mid-1800s. In 1850, 1,525 bushels left the Port of Galveston; just four years later, the number of bushels exceeded 13,000. In 1866, the ports at Galveston, Indianola, and Port Lavaca combined shipped more than 20,000 barrels of pecans.
Nevertheless, as the state’s population exploded, pecan groves dwindled. Trees were cut to clear fields for cotton. Pecan wood was used to make wagon parts and farm implements. One of Texas’s great natural resources was depleted so quickly that in 1904, the legislature considered passing laws to prevent the complete disappearance of the pecan.
Left alone to regenerate for a couple of decades, Texas pecan groves came back bigger than ever. Until 1945, Texas trees produced more 30 percent of the U.S. pecan crop. In 1910, pecan production in the state reached nearly 6 million pounds, and the trees grew in all but eight counties. During the 1920s, Texas exported 500 railcar loads per year, and that was only 75 percent of the state’s crop. The average annual production between 1936 and 1946 was just shy of 27 million pounds; in 1948, a banner year for pecan production, the crop zoomed to 43 million pounds produced by 3,212,633 trees. In 1972, the harvest reached a whopping 75 million pounds.
Texas pecan orchard
During the Great Depression, the pecan industry provided jobs for many Texans. The nuts had to be harvested and shelled. Shelling employed 12,000 to 15,000 people in San Antonio alone.
The Texas legislature designated the pecan the official state tree in 1919. Between then and now, pecan nuts became Texas’s official state health food (Texas has an official health food?), and pecan pie became the state’s official pie (and my official favorite pie). Pecan wood is used to make baseball bats, hammer handles, furniture, wall paneling, flooring, carvings, and firewood.
Yep. Pecans have always been, and continue to be, a Big Deal in Texas—especially during the holidays. I’d be surprised if any native Texans don’t bake at least one pecan pie for either Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner or both.
Texas pecan pie. Do you see how dark and luscious that is? Milk-custard, my hind leg.
The first known appearance of a pecan pie recipe in print can be found on page 95 in the February 6, 1886, issue of Harper’s Bazaar. I’ll bet Texans were baking the pies long before that, though—and I’ll bet even back then Texas pecan pies weren’t the wimpy little milk-custard-based, meringue-covered things Harper’s recommended. In Texas, we make our pecan pies with brown sugar, molasses or corn syrup, butter, eggs, a whole bunch of pecans, and sometimes bourbon.
Another thing Texans have been making with pecans for a long, long time is cinnamon-pecan cake—another treat lots of folks enjoy around the holidays. My family doesn’t put bourbon in this dessert. Instead, we pour a delicious whiskey sauce over each slice. (It occurs to me that for a passel of Baptists, my family sure cooks with a lot of liquor. See the old family recipe for muscadine wine here.)
On to the cake recipe!
Cinnamon Pecan Cake
1 cup butter, softened
2 ½ cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup milk
1 cup chopped pecans
Additional chopped pecans or pecan halves for topping, if desired
Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and lightly flour two 9x5x3-inch loaf pans.
In large bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt.
In another large bowl, beat butter and sugar at medium speed 3 to 4 minutes or until light and fluffy. Beating at low speed, add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.
At low speed, alternately add milk and flour mixture into sugar mixture, beating just until blended. Fold in pecans. Spread in pans. Sprinkle chopped pecans or arrange pecan halves on top, if desired.
Bake 1 hour or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans 10 minutes; remove to wire rack and cool completely.
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
½ Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. water
3 Tbsp. sugar
¼ cup bourbon
In small saucepan over medium heat, bring cream to a boil.
Whisk cornstarch and water together and add to cream while whisking constantly.
Bring to a boil, whisk and simmer until thickened (taking care not to scorch the mixture on the bottom). Remove from heat.
Stir in sugar and bourbon. Taste. Add sugar and whiskey to adjust sweetness and flavor, if desired.
Folks in Fort Worth in the 1880s would’ve eaten this cake—or something very similar—during the holidays. That’s exactly when and where “A Long Way from St. Louis,” my contribution to Prairie Rose Publications’s Christmas anthology A Mail-Order Christmas Bride, takes place. The book—with stories by fellow fillies Cheryl Pierson and Tanya Hanson—bows November 27, but it’s available for pre-order now at Amazon.
Here’s a little about “A Long Way from St. Louis”:
Cast out by St. Louis society when her husband leaves her for another, Elizabeth Adair goes west to marry a wealthy Texas rancher. Burning with anger over the deceit of a groom who is neither wealthy nor Texan, she refuses to wed and ends up on the backstreets of Fort Worth.
Ten years after Elizabeth’s father ran him out of St. Louis, Brendan Sheppard’s memory still sizzles with the rich man’s contempt. Riffraff. Alley trash. Son of an Irish drunkard. Yet, desire for a beautiful, unattainable girl continues to blaze in his heart.
When the debutante and the ne’er-do-well collide a long way from St. Louis, they’ll either douse an old flame…or forge a new love.
So, readers… What dish—dessert, main course, side, or appetizer—absolutely must be part of your holidays? I’ll give an ebook version of A Mail-Order Christmas Bride to one of today’s commenters who answers that question. (All Petticoats and Pistols sweepstakes rules apply to this giveaway.)