In our hearts as well as on our palates, no nut can compare with the official state nut of Texas, the lordly pecan
The sun has barely breached the horizon when I round the bend and first see the massive tree, its ancient, gnarled branches illuminated by shafts of sunlight. I’ve come to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park specifically to see this celebrated specimen, the La Bahía Pecan, to whet my excitement for Texas’ impending pecan harvest season, which runs from October through January.
The tree takes its name from the La Bahía Road, an east-west trail through southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas that was known as early as 1690. La Bahía Road crossed the Brazos River near where this tree sprouted in the early 1820s, at the spot where Andrew Robinson operated a ferry service and ranked among the first settlers of what would become Stephen F. Austin’s colony at Washington-on-the-Brazos. Remarkably, La Bahía’s nearest genetic relative is 900 miles away in Jaumave, Mexico … oh, the stories this tree could tell! The interpretive sign near the tree posits that perhaps a pecan fell from a saddlebag or wagon of Mexican travelers passing through, but I’ll pose a different theory for your consideration in a bit.
Then as now, groves of pecans stretch to the horizon along the Brazos River both to the north and south of me, as they do along many of our state’s rivers. Since a pecan tree requires about 200 gallons of water per day throughout most of the year, they thrive in riparian zones, and have since prehistoric times. Native Americans would plant even more seedlings along their riverine migration routes to ensure a future food source, which along with prickly pear tunas and buffalo meat comprised most of their diet from autumn into winter.
By the time the settlers came through, the pecan trees were so plentiful that pioneers felled the heavily laden specimens outright, or would stand on a low branch, cut off all the other branches to strip the nuts, and leave countless trees to die. By the dawn of the 20th century, the pecan faced extirpation in its native Texas soil.
Fortunately for the pecan—and for us—its savior-to-be was already toiling away. Edmond E. Risien, an Englishman who arrived in the Hill Country in 1870, had become fascinated with pecans and devoted his life to upbreeding them. He identified a top-producing tree in San Saba that would become known as the San Saba Mother Pecan, eventually buying the land solely to own that tree. From that tree would come revered varieties such as No. 60, Jersey, Liberty Bond, San Saba Improved, Texas Prolific and the internationally renowned Western Schley. Efforts of growers and conservationists have restored Texas’ native pecans to plenitude, and in 2001, the Texas Legislature bestowed it with its designation as the official nut of Texas.
My theory on the La Bahía Pecan? In 1821, Mexico won its War of Independence and wrested “New Spain,” as Texas was called, from the Spanish empire. As I ponder La Bahía’s origin, I imagine a friendly Franciscan friar roaming the Brazos River valley, unaligned and alone on a savage frontier, offering these sweet delicacies as a universal peace offering to all he meets, thus forging the pecan’s reputation for hospitality.
I sure would have, if I were he. Whether showcased in a pecan pie, tucked into sweet rolls redolent with cinnamon, glistening over ice cream in a buttery caramel sauce, twinkling atop a sweet potato casserole or incorporated into a savory pecan-cornbread dressing, pecans are the nut nonpareil when it comes to the holidays. Plus, nothing says “Welcome, guests,” better than an omnipresent bowl of sugared and spiced pecans, continuously replenished throughout the season.
Thinking about all of the delightful ways to use pecans as I stroll among the hundreds of nut-laden trees in the state park has me hankering to pick up a few pounds for my favorite pecan recipes. But they won’t come from here: Foraging of any kind is prohibited in Texas state parks, as it is in national parks and refuges, and that goes for even picking up nuts off the ground. “We want the nuts to stay in the parks,” says Kevin Good, assistant director for Texas state parks, “as a food source for wildlife and to grow more pecans.”
Having known that, I jump in the Jeep for the short drive from Washington-on-the-Brazos to Caldwell to Royalty Pecan Farms, a 500-acre sustainable pecan orchard, where the excitement about the imminent harvest is already building. Zach Stein, a Royalty Farms employee who’s also a biology student at Texas A&M, pulls up on a tractor hauling a long bench-seated wagon, and I join the crowd piling in for the modestly priced ($3) orchard tour. Stein’s a Katy native, he tells me, who served in the Navy after high school. He’s obviously passionate about pecans. He’s not the first here to become mesmerized by these majestic trees. “Owner Mike Adams fell in love with pecans and bought this land in 1985,” Stein tells me. “He still comes out here almost every day.”
Five hundred acres may sounds small by Texas standards, but Royalty Farms now has 16,000 producing trees from which they harvested 600,000 pounds of pecans in 2014. “We have seven of the 48 pecan varieties grown in Texas,” says Stein. “We grow Desirable, GraCrop, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Wichita and Pawnee—varieties selected for their flavor, production and suitability to our soil and climate.” Following the tour, the wagon disgorges us into the orchard shop, where shelves brim with pies, tarts, breads, pralines, coffee and other pecan confections including their own pecan-orchard honey. Royalty Farms employs a full-time chef on premises, and even hosts orchard weddings and other formal events.
Oh, and the pecans? They’re everywhere: in barrels, boxes and bags; in the shell, cracked or in halves or pieces. As I choose my treasures, I can barely wait to prepare the treats these plump, amber-hued jewels will grace.
Pecans rank highest among nuts in antioxidants, and may delay aging and decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and heart attack risk. Store pecans in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for up to six months or in the freezer for up to two years. The darker the nut, the older it is: Some supermarket pecans may be three to five years old, and dark brown in color. Fresh orchard pecans will be honeyed gold in color.
About Royalty Farms: Royalty Farms kicks off its 2015 harvest with a free wine tasting on October 3, and orchard tours every Saturday in October. The annual Pecan Harvest Festival and Pie-Baking Contest takes place on November 14. Call 800-694-8362. To locate other Texas pecan growers, visit the Texas Pecan Growers Association or call 979-846-3285.