It’s Puh-Khan Not Pee-Can! Pecan Culture and the South

“Pecans are not cheap, my hons. In fact, in the South, the street value of shelled pecans just before holiday baking season is roughly that of crack cocaine. Do not confuse the two. It is almost impossible to make a decent crack cocaine tassie, I am told.” ~Cecilia Riverbank

Now that pecan season is upon us, I decided to take some time to research and discuss the south’s favorite nut… the pecan!  As someone who grew up in a pecan orchard, I knew little about the culture and history behind them.  For example, did you know that pecans are native to America?  There should be enough research here to ace an entire round of pecan questions at trivia night.  Let’s get cracking. (Yes, pun intended.)

Shelled pecans

How do you say it?

There is a great debate in different parts of the country about how to properly pronounce pecan.  Is it puh-kahn, pee-can, or even pick-ahn?  The folks at Farm Flavor even charted it on a nifty map for us.  As any good Coastian, I call it a “puh-kahn.” However, Southern Living polled that 70% of northerners pronounce it “pee-can.”  Who is right?

Turns out there is an answer to this debate.  When Spanish explorers happened upon the native Algonquin people they asked the name of the nut they gathered.  The Native American answer in their Algonquin language, “puh-kahn.” That’s right my southern friends, the south’s pronunciation of pecan is the closest phonetically to the native peoples pronunciation. 

History of the “Puh-Kahn”

Another interesting name for the pecan is the Mississippi Nut.  It was big business by 1915 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi to grow and harvest pecans.  According to the Daily Herald in November 1915, “Figures compiled by the local railroad officials show that from October 15 to November 20, 1915, 38,344 pounds of pecans have been sent from here by freight express.” 

By 1949, over a million and a half pounds were processed by Williams Pecan Factory in Gulfport!  These loads were cracked by machinery with the bits removed by workers.  Grafting and cross pollinating caused the amount of pecan varieties to grow to 500 today.

I love sweet pecan desserts. They are stable in the south.

The Pecan and the South

Pecan season runs October through December.  Perfect timing for delicious, southern recipes like pecan pie, pralines, and my own grandmother’s specialty lady finger cookies.  There are snatches of childhood memories in mind of me cracking pecans, or listening to my great-grandmother crack them, while a fire roared. 

I am disappointed to say that I was not a fan of pecans as a child.  My grandma Missie would make a 2 sided cake.  (A yellow cake with two different sides frosted.)  One side was always white 7 minute frosting that I loved, the other was chocolate with pecans sprinkled on top.  Now that my grandma has been gone for 15 years, I would gladly eat that chocolate side!

My story is not unique to those among the Gulf Coast. Most families down here have some pecan centered specialty.  In fact, this love for pecans has built whole companies. The first craft brewery on the Gulf Coast happened to get its start brewing a pecan based beer. Lazy Magnolia brewery in the Kiln won a bronze medal in 2006 at the World Beer Cup for it in the specialty beer category. 

pecan desserts

Health Benefits of Pecans

Provided we do not cover pecans in praline sauce or douse them in sugar, pecans are labeled with some powerful health benefits.  (I am not a doctor so consult yours for all medical advice.)  Here are a few quick ones:

*Some controlled tests show improvements in cholesterol for those who consumed pecans. 

*They are a good source of magnesium.  Magnesium has a reputation to help with depression.

*Tests have also showed improvement in blood sugar.

*They are high in fiber and protein!

I recommend checking out Pinterest for some fantastic pecan and heath graphics!

Where to get Your Pecan Fix

Another establishment that made a living off of the pecan industry is the Pecan House.  Conveniently located in McHenry and Gulfport.  The Pecan House began making pecan candy after whole selling pecans in the McHenry area for over 50 years.  Mrs. Barbara Overstreet began making and selling the candies in 1984, and expanded the business with mail order catalogs.  They had even created a buzz by 1987 by being featured in The Sun Herald.

I recommend checking it out in person. Try out the praline flavored pecans and/or pecan log! If you cannot make the drive or flight, you can always order online.

If you want to enjoy learning more about pecans without expanding waist line I recommend checking out the Pecan episode by Savor podcast. 

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What is your favorite pecan treat? 

2 thoughts on “It’s Puh-Khan Not Pee-Can! Pecan Culture and the South

  1. Ariella says:

    I love this! Makes me feel like I’m in a dreamy and cozy holiday home with my grandma. —-I love cinnamon roasted pecans :).

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