“Hello!” I greeted in an almost overly-cheerful tone. Excitement radiated from my bright young eyes as I hurriedly approached the counter of my family’s favorite ice cream chain with a very important task to execute. I, at the time, a proud seven-year-old, was gifted the opportunity to place the ice cream order that evening (something only the adults in my family typically had the pleasure of doing).
“Yes, young lady. How can I help you?” the very kind attendant inquired with gentle, curious eyes, as she awaited my answer.
I immediately took a deep breath to ensure I would project loud enough for the attendant to clearly hear me, and with the amped up tone of my juvenile soprano voice, I proceeded to begin the order with my mother’s favorite treat. “May I have a pineapple sundae with butter pecan ice cream, please?”
Fast forward several years later. I’m in the backyard of my grandmother’s quaint North Carolina home with my best friend on a chilly October evening. After a long day of yard work, we found ourselves having a surprisingly enjoyable experience picking ripe pecans that had fallen from the branches of the yard’s enormous pecan tree, scientifically known as Carya illinoinensis of the Hickory species, Juglandaceae. Seeing as it was mid-October and the height of pecan harvesting season, it was hard not to notice that my comrade and I weren’t the only ones foraging for pecans.
Perhaps it was a slight case of paranoia, but I could almost feel the beady black eyes of territorial squirrels stalking us with our carefree attitudes while we gathered a source of their winter nourishment — the hard, oblong pecan husks littering the yard.
However, with obvious eagerness (and a slight, though unwarranted fear of squirrel retaliation), we proceeded to seek out mature brown husks, specifically those that were split into four segments, since split husks indicate that the pecan is ripe and ready to be extracted from the husk. This meant all we had to do was peel back the sectioned husks to obtain the thin-shelled pecan — a drupe fruit, which, many times is mistakenly referred to as a nut.
Having gathered two large bags of fresh, ripe pecans, I was ready to create a multitude of amazing desserts that would be as memorable as the butter pecan ice cream sundae I had ordered for my mother many years earlier.
So far, I had been experiencing a lucky streak when it came to pecans. First, I was in North Carolina, one of the pecan-producing states in the U.S., along with Georgia (the top U.S. producer), Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, California, Florida, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Hawaii. Secondly, it was peak season, during which time the U.S. produces an annual crop of 150-200 thousand tons of pecans from more than 10 million trees (so the squirrels had no reason to be jealous, there were plenty of pecans to go around). Finally, the abundant fruit is full of nutritional benefits. According to www.nutrition-and-you.com, they are rich sources of the minerals manganese, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and selenium; pecans are a main source of energy, carrying 690 calories/100g; the popular shelled treat also helps to decrease LDL (bad cholesterol) and increases HDL (good cholesterol) in the blood; they’re a good source of vitamin E, and offer a long list of other healthful contributions.
With the healthy and extremely versatile fruit, I was able to enjoy the pure taste of freshly cracked buttery pecans direct from the shell. My grandfather was delighted to partake in freshly roasted cinnamon-sugar coated pecans. My best friend and I experienced our first taste of a sweet potato-pecan pie (which was phenomenal). I even utilized the adaptable fruit as part of a coating in a savory oven-fried poultry dish. Indeed, these culinary examples are only a miniscule percentage of what the universal pecan is capable of. Imagine creating bars, tarts, breads, pancakes, pecan pie, praline candies, traditional ice cream, and even today’s hot dessert trend, artisanal gelato.
The pecan embodies a friendly flavor as well, meaning it’s easily paired with an infinite number of tastes including bourbon, caramel, chocolate, honey, cranberry, fig, pumpkin, cheesecake … you name it. Despite the reality that the pecan fruit is undoubtedly a standalone powerhouse or essential ingredient in many mouthwatering concoctions, the expansive realm of innovative pecan-based delights is fun to explore, but I always find myself seeking out the comfort of that nostalgic classic treat, butter pecan ice cream.