Pecans | Barbara Bryant & Betsy Fentress
Pecans: Recipes & History of an American Nut
By Barbara Bryant & Betsy Fentress
Recipes by Rebecca Lang
Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery By The Book with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York city sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Betsy Fentress: Hi, I'm Betsy Fentress, and I am the coauthor of the just released Pecans: Recipes and History of an American Nut by Rizzoli Publishers.
Suzy Chase: First things first, I need to settle a running, heated debate between my husband and me. Is it pecan or pecan?
Betsy Fentress: That is a great question. There's a sidebar in the book about all the different ways that people say it, depending on what part of the country they're from. I say pecan, and I think a lot of farmers say pecan. So, I guess it depends whether you want to consider yourself city or country. Are you the city mouse or the country mouse? I don't know.
Suzy Chase: That's what I told him. He grew up in a suburb and upstate New York. I said, "Where are you getting pecan from?"
Betsy Fentress: I don't know, because I actually grew up in Iowa in not a huge town, but we owe it ... My mother was from Philadelphia. Maybe that's why. But I only knew it as pecan, and then I started hearing pecan. My husband's from the South and I thought, "Well, okay, I guess there is more than one way to say this." But I worked on a book on almonds, and we actually had the same issue. A lot of the people, the agriculture people in the almond world say [ahmond 00:01:38]
Suzy Chase: What?
Betsy Fentress: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzy Chase: They take the L out?
Betsy Fentress: They take the L out. It's kind of like they put an H in there.
Suzy Chase: That's weird.
Betsy Fentress: It's the old Cole Porter song, "You say potato. I say potato." I guess it's up and running here in 21st century dealing with nuts.
Suzy Chase: It's nutty. So, what would Thanksgiving be without pecan pie, New Orleans without pecan pralines? Southern home cooks would have to hang up their aprons without pecans. The pecan is the only tree nut native to North America, tracing its origin to the 16th century. Can you give us a short history?
Betsy Fentress: One of the reasons I really fell in love with this project is that the two main groups of people responsible for the pecan are the native Americans and the African Americans. And the native Americans use the pecan for medicine. They used it for bartering. They used it in all kinds of ways. And because it was portable, they could take it as they settled along the southern coastal regions and also in Texas. And there was one Spanish Explorer named Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and he was actually captured by a group of Native Americans in Texas, and really came to appreciate them and their culture. And they settled along the riverbanks of Texas. And there he learned how they used pecans. And so he was the first person that wrote about pecans in his journals in the 1500s.
Suzy Chase: So, Native Americans used pecans for so many things. The leaves were dried and ground to cure ringworm. The bark was boiled down to treat TB and used to make tea to soothe upset stomachs. And it even had a role in currency. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Betsy Fentress: Well, yes. They would travel with these attached to their belts sometimes or their garments. They were considered even more precious than freshwater pearls, which they also used. And that's about all I know on that particular subject, what was in our introduction.
Suzy Chase: It was shocking to read that they were more valuable than freshwater pearls.
Betsy Fentress: Exactly. What happened with this book, I was ... There's so many ways that you can go with learning about this. As we've gone to publication and with the whole 1619 supplement to the New York times, it made me want to go back and go to Texas, go to Georgia, go to libraries there. A lot of this stuff was not available online. I did reach out to some African American people about learning more of how pecans were central in their culinary history. And all of that is really coming to light with Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene that I'm reading. I'm just riveted by it. And I feel like there's a lot more to learn about how pecans were part of African American and Native American culture. I think there's a lot of history that still needs to get uncovered in both of those areas.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of 1619, which is incredible, I would love to recognize a slave named Antoine on a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana for successfully grafting pecan trees and forever altering the crop. Describe grafting for us.
Betsy Fentress: Well, grafting is a process where if you want a root stalk to be somewhat more hardy and less susceptible to disease, they take these different root stalks, and they take a slice, and they grow them to each other in labs. And that story is the one that I really wanted to know more about. The fact that Antoine didn't even have a last name was just so disheartening to me because he was working at Oak Alley Plantation as an enslaved man. And they received a root stalk from a neighbor. And it was he who successfully grafted what is now called the Centennial pecan tree, which was the perfect combination of these various varietals of pecan trees. And I just can only imagine now what would happen if a scientist became known for something that central and what their monetary reward would we, what their professional rewards would be. And here we only know that his name was Antoine.
Suzy Chase: I have no words. It's just-
Betsy Fentress: I know. It's ... And I went back to the graphic designer and said, who is a very, very thoughtful person, and said, "Can we have illustrations in the book that represent more about this? And she said, "Betsy, I spent a lot of time on this and ... " And I think that maybe some of this isn't there. It's not easily found digitally. And so I was reading recently about that there was a flurry of cookbooks after the Civil War that were published because largely in the South, white people had African American enslaved people as their cooks, and the white women didn't know how to cook.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Betsy Fentress: And I just thought, "There's so much to uncover here." I wanted photographs of people harvesting pecans, but we couldn't, in our limited time and production, get more of that material in the book. But I thought, "Maybe there should just be another book."
Suzy Chase: I would love that.
Betsy Fentress: I would too. I think that the time is ripe for us to re-examine. I love so much food that came from African Americans. I would like to have them more represented in culinary history in this country.
Suzy Chase: George Washington fell for the first pecan during the revolutionary war, and he planted the first pecan trees at Mount Vernon in 1775. Are they still there?
Betsy Fentress: The biggest one had to come down, but I do believe that ... I think they replant them. I'm not aware that they have any of actual original ones. In the 2010s, the oldest known pecan tree at Mount Vernon had to come down.
Suzy Chase: And then while serving as ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson was sent fresh pecans from Philadelphia. Then in 1790, he planted two hundred pecan nuts at Monticello over a five year period. Was he the first to grow trees as an orchard?
Betsy Fentress: That is my understanding. There was someone in Upstate New York who I believed tried to do some of this, but Jefferson is the one who really put them on the map. He loved them, and he gave them to a lot of people. When he was away from home, he had them sent to him.
Suzy Chase: I noticed that sometimes pecans were called Illinois nuts in the book. Why was that?
Betsy Fentress: Well, it was, I believe an Indian chief whose name was Chief Pacnne, P-A-C-N-N-E. And he was ... The literal translation of that word, I've read about it. I read it two ways. One says that it's just ... The translation is nut, from the Illinois word. And the other is that it means that it needs a stone to crack it. So, either one of those, but those are related to Chief Pacnne.
Suzy Chase: Oh, so that's where the word pecan comes from?
Betsy Fentress: Correct.
Suzy Chase: Huh. That's interesting. So, is there a special skill or tool you need to harvest pecans?
Betsy Fentress: In the South, some of the old fashion people, they just take two nuts and put them both in their hand and crush them against each other to pop them open. And then there's your basic nutcracker. And then there are other ones that almost look like a lathe, where you put the nut on, and you turn it, and you crank it, and it pops them open. But the people have devised all kinds of ways to do it. And I think it's a little bit of an art to get them out whole, quite frankly.
Suzy Chase: And I think there's so pretty whole. There's something aesthetically pleasing about a pecan.
Betsy Fentress: Absolutely. They're just ... I know sometimes when I chop them, I feel like I'm degrading them.
Suzy Chase: Yes, me too. These days where are most pecans produced?
Betsy Fentress: Well, in the United States, it goes Georgia, New Mexico and Texas. This is statistics from a couple of years ago, 76 million in Georgia, 67 million in New Mexico, and 61 million in Texas. We export a lot to Canada, and the Chinese have really fallen in love with the pecan. And we're exporting a lot to China now. It's still a much smaller industry than almonds. The last book that I worked on was devoted to almonds. 280 million pecans produced in the United States per year versus two billion almonds.
Suzy Chase: Wow. Well, hopefully pecans are catching up.
Betsy Fentress: I think they are. I was looking, their nutritional value ... I was comparing them to almonds the other day. They have a higher fat content, and they don't have as much protein, but they have antioxidants in them. They have all kinds of vitamins and thiamine. And I think a lot of nutritionists are really ... They're willing to call them a super food, which I think is kind of new.
Suzy Chase: You have a whole section called Creative Reuse of Pecan Shells. Talk a little bit about that.
Betsy Fentress: Oh gosh. Yeah. I lived in Louisiana for a little while, and I remember people using shells for their driveways. I thought, "Why?" I always thought that sea shells were kind of these precious things that people didn't do anything but display them, but pecans can be used in that way. In landscaping, they provide acidity to garden soil. Pecan wood is great for grilling and for providing smokey flavor to your barbecue. The inner lining of pecan shells can be used for tanning leather. And the ground shells, they are used in resin to produce a wood-like effect. They can be used to clean jet engines. And probably one of their most famous uses in recent years was that pecan wood was used for torches from Greece to Atlanta for the Olympics. I'm sorry, I also should add that they're used in beauty products, finely ground for cleansing scrubs.
Suzy Chase: I also read that fermented pecan powder is thought to be the first nut milk. Who knew?
Betsy Fentress: Yeah. I know. I think it's really wonderful for all of the people that are vegetarian, vegan, have health allergies that both pecans and almonds, just the explosion of using their flowers and their milks for really new and inventive ways for substituting traditional dairy and gluten products in cooking. I just think it's a lot of fun to take recipes and sub things out and see how the textures and the flavors change.
Suzy Chase: My only issue with pecans is that they aren't particularly inexpensive. So, if we're into foraging, where would we look for pecan trees to harvest?
Betsy Fentress: That is a really good question. You run into people that will just say, "Oh yeah. We used to out into the country and my grandma had a pecan tree on her farm." I think people have planted them historically in the South, partly because of their shade factor. And then the harvest was kind of lagniappe, as they say down in New Orleans. It was something that you didn't expect, but you got. And so I think that there are people that planted pecan trees, just the way somebody plants an oak tree, except that, unlike acorns, you can actually eat the fruit when they fall off in the fall.
Suzy Chase: There are so many delicious looking recipes in this cookbook. I have never thought of making pecan flavored butter. Tell us about those.
Betsy Fentress: I think it's a really fun way to have a pancake, or a piece of toast, or even on your hors d'oeuvre platter. They're just really good. They go really, really well with honey. And what I like about this cookbook is we've added a lot of spices from the South, especially New Mexico which has a large presence of pecans. But the chili pecan lime butter, that's a great one to have. If you have a Mexican themed party or dish, you just add a little bit of that. You can put it on a tortilla before you wrap up your burrito. I mean, there's just a lot of fun things that you can do with it.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, that one caught my eye because it wasn't sweet. It's more savory.
Betsy Fentress: Exactly.
Suzy Chase: So, over the weekend, I made your recipes for banana pecan quick bread on page 53 and pecan-studded blue crab cakes on page 116. Describe the crab cakes.
Betsy Fentress: They start with the pecan remoulade, which again is nodding our hats to New Orleans, which has mayonnaise and mustard and chives, so you've got a little bit of bite on there. And then with the crab cakes, green onions, garlic, chives, again dijon for that bite, eggs, panko, which has that nice crust. And then of course you're topping them ... You're including toasted pecans. And it's just kind of a fresh way to have a crab cake that has more interesting ... And like I said, has a little bit of bite to those flavors. How did you find them?
Suzy Chase: It made for kind of an interesting texture.
Betsy Fentress: Rebecca Lang developed these recipes for us. She is an Athens, Georgia based recipe developer, chef. And she brought so much fun to this project. And she is a southerner, and she loves fish. And so what we did with both our almonds book and with this is we would take a lot of kind of classic recipes or staples in American cuisine, and then we would work together and say ... We would look at the overview of the whole book and say, "What are some of the flavor profiles that we think would be interesting?" And so this was I think one of her most unique ones.
Suzy Chase: This week, I'm going to make my favorite classic Mexican wedding cookies.
Betsy Fentress: Oh yeah?
Suzy Chase: I didn't have time over the weekend, but I'm making them this week. They're so good. I can't wait.
Betsy Fentress: They're really, really good. I have to tell you, if I were to pick my favorite entrée in this book, it would be roasted poblano chili stuffed with quinoa, corn and pecans. It's to die for. I think Rebecca just also did an amazing job of that recipe, and all the melted cheese, and the quinoa ... Another really old food that goes back to Native Americans, and the corn ... I mean, you could really have a lot of fun with this cookbook at Thanksgiving.
Suzy Chase: Now to my new segment this season called My Favorite Cookbook. Aside from this cookbook, what is your all time favorite cookbook and why?
Betsy Fentress: One of my favorite cookbooks is ... Well, I think I learned to cook with The Joy of Cooking. And the other cookbook I learned to cook with was the new New York Times Cookbook. And Craig Claiborne taught me a lot. But I am always buying cookbooks and trying new ones. I was in Philadelphia with my vegan daughter over Labor Day, and we cooked out of Ottolenghi's Plenty, and I loved it. The flavors, the brightness, the freshness, that's not a way that I started out cooking over 30 years ago. But, The joy, I love the voice of Irma Rombauer. I just think there's something really wonderful about the kind of bossy way that she says how a pie crust has to be. She things like, "'Tis a poor pie crust that requires extra water." And I love that confidence in her. I really do.
But I was going to say that the first book that Barbara and I did together, The Bryant Family Vineyard Cookbook, we had over 40 chefs in that cookbook, Daniel Boulud's chocolate mousse, Larry Forgione's strawberry shortcake. There's just so many classic recipes in that cookbook. There's one from Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller. If I'm doing a really fancy party, I know that every recipe in that cookbook is going to work. And all the recipes on that one were developed by Denise Landis, who was at the time the New York Times' recipe tester. To me, it's ...
And I just saw, she was interviewed by someone in England for, I think a blog. And she named it ... And she has a thousands of cookbooks. She's a cookbook collector, and she said that it was one of her top three cookbooks in her whole collection that we worked on together. I was so excited to read that.
Suzy Chase: That's great.
Betsy Fentress: How about you? Do you have one?
Suzy Chase: Mine would be my Girl Scout cookbook that I had when I was really young, as hokey as that sounds.
Betsy Fentress: I don't think it's hokey. And now I'm embarrassed because my sister put a family cookbook together that I actually do use, and I probably should've said that.
Suzy Chase: Oh, you're going to hear it.
Betsy Fentress: I know, exactly.
Suzy Chase: Okay. So, your all time favorite cookbook is?
Betsy Fentress: I think it's The Joy of Cooking.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Betsy Fentress: You can find us on the web at PecansCookbook.com. Twitter and Instagram, our handles are @PecansCookbook. And our Facebook page is Pecans: Recipes and History of an American Nut.
Suzy Chase: This has been so interesting. Thanks, Betsy, for coming on Cookery By The Book Podcast.
Betsy Fentress: Thank you for having me, Suzy. My pleasure.
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