For many of the cool autumn weekends of my childhood, my family made the trip to southern Georgia to help my grandmothers harvest pecans on their rural farms. Grandmother Maggie Lanier lived beside an orchard of seedlings just outside of the scenic town Metter, a Mayberry-like place northwest of Savannah. My maternal grandmother, Ona Jarriel, lived on the other side of the interstate, down a dirt road nestled between the tiny towns of Collins and Cobbtown. She had about 20 Schley pecan trees that produced hundreds of pounds of pecans each fall.
My siblings, cousins, and I were not the most willing of participants for the back-breaking chore of picking up thousands of the smooth brown nuts, but someone had to do it. Both of my elderly grandmothers relied on the extra income generated by selling pecans on the South Georgia nut market to pay their bills. We soldiered through the work, though we moaned and groaned a lot about the task.
We moved from tree to tree, plucking the nuts from the ground and collecting them in the hems of our shirts before depositing our hoards into buckets placed nearby. After we had filled several buckets, we transferred the contents to large burlap sacks and loaded them into the back of our uncle’s pickup truck. To break the monotony of the work, we would occasionally hurl nuts at one another, and yes, pecans can and will leave welts on backs and rear ends if flung at high speeds.
I remember cocking my head toward the leafy canopy and seeing clusters of open husks, revealing pecans that refused to let go. Our family seldom used mechanical tree shakers to empty the trees. Instead, my brother scrambled up the trunks like a little monkey and bounced along the mighty limbs. I can still hear my mother’s warning call. “Be careful up there!” she would holler, followed by the jolting rustle of leaves and the gentle thuds of pecans falling onto the plowed dirt like heavy hailstones.
Fresh, raw pecans are a delicacy like no other, best enjoyed while standing directly under the tree they’ve fallen from. Early on I learned the art of cracking pecans in my hands by placing two nuts side by side in my palm and squeezing my fist with great force, like I was gripping a grenade. The goal was to crack two complete halves from their shells and pop them in my mouth without any of the bitter shell attached.
During the winter months, my mother always kept a big bowl of pecans — pronounced in my family as PEE-kans, rather than pi-kahns — and a spring-loaded nutcracker on the hearth, inviting us to sit down for a few minutes, crack out a few, and savor one of the classic tastes of the South while warming our bones next to a glowing fire.
The pecan crop ripened and rained from the trees just before the holidays kicked off, so all of the gatherings between Thanksgiving and Christmas showcased desserts and candies featuring heaps of fresh pecan halves and chopped pecan pieces. Grandmother Jarriel’s signature holiday desserts were her dense, nut-laden fruitcakes and her sweet, succulent pecan pies. Her pies were magnificent concoctions of pecans, corn syrup, butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Grandmother Lanier whipped up batches of fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth pecan divinity. Neither of my grandmothers skimped on the pecans in their recipes — they didn’t have to.
Like shelling peas occupied the afternoons of summertime, cracking out nuts in a large lap pan was a necessary activity in the weeks following the fall pecan harvest. We cracked out enough to fill several freezer bags so we could enjoy pecans year-round in fudges, brownies, cookies, pound cakes, congealed salads, and sweet-potato soufflés.
I always thought they were nuts, but several years ago, I learned that they are technically drupes — fruits containing a stone or pit surrounded by soft flesh or husk, like peaches. Nut, fruit, whatever they are, they are delicious and nutritious. Each nut is packed with protein and fiber, and contains some iron, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, and B vitamins.
Every time I eat a slice of pecan pie, I close my eyes and wander back to the autumn days of my childhood so many years ago. It was hard work, but today I’m proud to have such a connection to one of the superstars of Southern cuisine and cooking.
Grandma Ona’s Pecan Pie
• 3 beaten eggs
• 1 teaspoon Watkins vanilla
• 1 to 1-1/2 cups pecan halves
• 1/2 cup light corn syrup
• 1/2 cup butter
• 1-1/4 cup sugar
• 1 9-inch prepared pie crust
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. In large mixing bowl, combine eggs, vanilla and pecans. Set aside.
3. Combine corn syrup, butter and sugar in small sauce pan, and gradually bring to boil over low-medium heat. Remove from heat.
4. Add hot syrup mixture to eggs, vanilla and pecans, and stir until well combined. Pour into pie crust.
5. Bake for 45 minutes. Pecans will be dark amber color when done. Allow pie to cool for 2 hours before serving.
Amber Lanier Nagle is a freelance writer specializing in articles and stories that commemorate her Southern roots. She has assembled an anthology of creative nonfiction stories titled Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake.com). She writes from her home in northwest Georgia.