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The Pecan: A History of America's Native Nut

Overview

What would Thanksgiving be without pecan pie? New Orleans without pecan pralines? Southern cooks would have to hang up their aprons without America’s native nut, whose popularity has spread far beyond the tree’s natural home. But as familiar as the pecan is, most people don’t know the fascinating story of how native pecan trees fed Americans for thousands of years until the nut was “improved” a little more than a century ago—and why that rapid domestication actually threatens ...

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The Pecan: A History of America's Native Nut

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Overview

What would Thanksgiving be without pecan pie? New Orleans without pecan pralines? Southern cooks would have to hang up their aprons without America’s native nut, whose popularity has spread far beyond the tree’s natural home. But as familiar as the pecan is, most people don’t know the fascinating story of how native pecan trees fed Americans for thousands of years until the nut was “improved” a little more than a century ago—and why that rapid domestication actually threatens the pecan’s long-term future.

In The Pecan, acclaimed writer and historian James McWilliams explores the history of America’s most important commercial nut. He describes how essential the pecan was for Native Americans—by some calculations, an average pecan harvest had the food value of nearly 150,000 bison. McWilliams explains that, because of its natural edibility, abundance, and ease of harvesting, the pecan was left in its natural state longer than any other commercial fruit or nut crop in America. Yet once the process of “improvement” began, it took less than a century for the pecan to be almost totally domesticated. Today, more than 300 million pounds of pecans are produced every year in the United States—and as much as half of that total might be exported to China, which has fallen in love with America’s native nut. McWilliams also warns that, as ubiquitous as the pecan has become, it is vulnerable to a “perfect storm” of economic threats and ecological disasters that could wipe it out within a generation. This lively history suggests why the pecan deserves to be recognized as a true American heirloom.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
09/01/2013
McWilliams (Just Food; A Revolution in Eating) offers another entry in a growing field of books that trace the historical and cultural paths of a single food. Whereas these works were once the domain of academics, recent titles, including this one, are written in a style accessible to general readers. The author does an admirable job of telling the very American story of the pecan, starting with pre-Columbian times and arriving at the sophisticated and improved pecan that is produced today. According to the author, the scrappy pecan tree managed to survive and thrive despite early periods of harvest methods that thinned groves, a cotton industry that had landowners clearing forest for crops, and spring flooding. McWilliams weaves American history, agricultural history, and science into the story of the wild pecan groves and their transformation into an industrialized crop that some believe was saved by rising exports to China. While the author ends with some concerns about the future of the pecan, readers will be left with hope that the tree will persevere. VERDICT This excellent and charming story describes a tree that endured numerous hardships to become not only a staple of Southern cuisine but an American treasure.—Ann Wilberton, Pace Univ. Lib., New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780292749160
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2013
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 373,930
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

James McWilliams is a historian and writer whose books include Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in the New York Times, Harpers, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Slate, Forbes, Travel and Leisure, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Texas Observer, where he has been a contributing writer since 2002. McWilliams is also a contributor to Freakonomics.com and a winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities.
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Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction: Cracking the Nut
Chapter 1. The Native Americans' Nut
Chapter 2. "Pekan Nuttrees": Europeans Encounter the Pecan
Chapter 3. ". . . the Forest into an Orchard": Passive Cultivation on the Texas Frontier
Chapter 4. Antoine's Graft: The Birth of the Improved Pecan, 1822–1900
Chapter 5. "To Make These Little Trees": The Culture of Pecan Improvement, 1900–1925
Chapter 6. "Pecans for the World": The Pecan Goes Industrial, 1920-1945
Chapter 7. "In Almost Any Recipe . . . Pecans May Be Used": American Consumers Embrace the Pecan, 1940-1960
Chapter 8. "China Wants Our Nuts": The Pecan Goes Global
Epilogue. The Future of Pecans
Notes
Bibliographical Essay
Index
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