Interview: Kathleen Purvis on Pecans

Pecans: a Savor the South cookbook (r) by Kathleen PurvisKathleen Purvis teaches readers how to find, store, cook, and enjoy pecans, the American nut. Pecans: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook includes fifty-two recipes, ranging from traditional to inventive, from uniquely southern to distinctly international, including Bourbon-Orange Pecans, Buttermilk-Pecan Chicken, Pecan Pralines, and Leche Quemada. In addition to the recipes, Purvis delights readers with the pecan’s culinary history and its intimate connections with southern culture and foodways. Headnotes for the recipes offer humorous personal stories and preparation tips.

In the following interview, Purvis shows that no matter how you pronounce it, pecans are a staple ingredients for any kitchen.

Q: The SAVOR THE SOUTH® series features several cookbooks that focus on a single ingredient. Why were you drawn to pecans?

A:  Both sides of my family are from Georgia, with ties that go back many generations. So I was not only raised with pecans as an ingredient in many family dishes, I also had an appreciation for its history and the wide variety of ways it can be used in cooking. Plus, I really do love pecans and could never get sick of them.

Q:  In your prologue, you refer to the pecan as “the American nut.” How did it earn this designation? How popular is it outside of the United States?

A:  Pecans are an offshoot of the hickory and are native to America. They were known to and used by the American Indians. These days, though, their popularity has spread much wider. People love them in Europe. In fact, they’re so popular in China that the demand has cut into the supply in America and driven up the price.

Kathleen Pruvis, author of Pecans: a Savor the South (R) cookbook; photo by Wendy Yang

Kathleen Purvis, author of Pecans: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook (photo by Wendy Yang)

Q:  How did Georgia, the peach state, become the number one pecan producer in the United States?

A:  Believe it or not, it was an early marketing ploy. In the early 20th century, during a real estate boom, sellers drew buyers for plots of land in Georgia by planting pecan trees and marketing them as mini-plantations that would pay for themselves in all the pecans they would sell. A similar ploy was used with oranges in Florida. In both cases, of course, it turned out to be a lot more difficult to successfully raise and harvest a crop. But in Georgia, as in Florida, enough trees survived to eventually make Georgia a major producer of pecans.

Q:  What are some of the differences between the many varieties of pecans? Can you taste the difference? If so, what are some of your favorites?

A:  I think the flavor differences would be very subtle and difficult for all but an expert to detect. Mainly, you’d see the difference in size, shape, and in the thickness of the shell.

Q:  Most people don’t think about finding or picking their own pecans. What are some tips you give on this front and what are the benefits of a “fresh” nut?

A:  While I’ve certainly run across plenty of people who have bought my book because they have a pecan tree, I focused more on tips for buying pecans. Because pecan trees are hormonal, they naturally alternate years when they produce a heavy crop with years when they produce a lighter crop. So you want to try to get nuts that were harvested that year. In the shell, they are best for about a year. Once you shell them, you need to be careful that they don’t get old and taste rancid. Store shelled pecans in the freezer to be safe.

Q:  Some readers might be surprised to learn about a Southern tradition involving pecan farms, shotguns, and mistletoe. Could you tell us about this?

A:  Most of us know the old tradition that if you’re caught standing under mistletoe at Christmas, you have to kiss the person who catches you. Tying a few sprigs of mistletoe with ribbon and hanging it from a doorframe is an old game. What people don’t know is that mistletoe is a parasite plant that grows well in the upper boughs of pecan trees. So to get mistletoe, the tradition is to go out into a grove of pecan trees in early December, after the leaves have fallen and you can see to the top of the tree, and fire shotguns to knock down bundles of mistletoe. In the winter, the mistletoe is distinctive and easy to spot—look for ball-shaped clusters in the upper branches.

Q:  What are some of your best tips for shelling pecans?

A:  I’m a fan of the slide-style of nut cracker: You place a nut in a trough, pull back a spring-loaded weight, and let it go. You tend to get more halves that way. There’s a bit of mess from all the shells, so I usually do it outside, spreading out newspaper to catch the shells. You also can use some of the shells to spread in a garden.

Q:  How did you research and develop these recipes?

A:  As a food writer for more than 20 years—and a home cook all my life—I have an extensive collection of old cookbooks, handed-down family recipes, and jotted notes on things I’ve eaten that I loved. I change things and tweak a lot when I test recipes, and I have a lot of experience in writing recipes to make them clearer, simpler, and better-tasting.

Q:  In your book, you touch on the nutritional value of the pecan, which is high in healthy fat and antioxidants. Does the pecan have other health benefits?

A:  All nuts are high in fiber, minerals, and vitamins—including E and A, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. There is also evidence that pecans may lower LDL, the cholesterol that can lead to heart disease. Pecans, like most nuts, are high in fat, but that fat is unsaturated.

Q:  You’ve no doubt met many pecan-lovers while promoting this book, which was published in the fall of 2012. Do you have any stories to share?

A:  After much experience, I can tell you that the number one question about pecans, hands down, is whether to pronounce it “PEE-can” or “pah-CAHN.” It always comes up and usually within less than a minute. I also can tell you, after extensive experience that it has nothing to do with whether you come from the South or the North. I believe that the difference is urban versus rural: If you’re from the country, or your parents were, or you want to sound more down-home, you will usually say “PEE-can.” If you’re from the city or you want to sound a little more refined, you’ll usually say “pah-CAHN.” It can also change based on how you’re using the word—even if you say “PEE-can,” you’ll say “pah-CAHN” pie.

I even met a woman from Missouri who said “peck-in,” which is close to the original Indian word, “pekkin,” which was just used for any nut so hard you had to crack it with a rock.

Q:  Pecans are commonly used in both sweet and savory dishes. What recipes in your cookbook offer a fresh twist on this classic ingredient?

A:  I love my Sweet Heat Sriracha Pecans, which is a twist on the usual roasted pecans you put out for a party. I’ve also seen people go crazy for the Blue Cheese Pecan Spread. I’ve converted blue cheese haters with that one. I created the Pecan-Crusted Grouper for a friend who adores fresh fish. And I think a lot of people wouldn’t think of making pesto with pecans, but I like it better than the traditional pine nut version.

###
Kathleen Purvis is food editor of the Charlotte Observer and a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, the Association of Food Journalists, and the James Beard Foundation. Follow her on Twitter.