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The Pecan: A History of America's Native Nut Hardcover – October 1, 2013
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Pecans are America’s native nut, one rarely seen outside North American kitchens. Although the New World readily exported tobacco, tomatoes, chili peppers, and potatoes to Europe, there was simply no market for pecans, perhaps because they seemed too similar to Europe’s walnuts and because pecan wood is not generally desirable for lumber. From the beginning, pecans were harvested from the wild, but growing demand soon rendered such foraging obsolete. By the turn of the twentieth century, advances in grafting made pecan orchards possible, and the number of pecan trees increased exponentially, especially in Georgia. The invention of corn syrup gave birth to pecan pie, and the pecan became indissolubly linked with Southern cuisine. Recent years have witnessed a remarkable and hugely profitable resurgence in pecan cultivation due to explosive demand for the nut from China, where pecans’ exotic novelty has transformed the humble nut into a coveted status symbol. --Mark Knoblauch
"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 University Library, New York, Library Journal "Writer and historian James McWilliams chronicles the fascinating rise of the familiar and delicious foodstuff known as the buttery main ingredient in Southern staples such as pralines and pecan pie." - Atlanta Journal Constitution "McWilliams's previous writing embraces food and agriculture from a deliciously human point of view. Here, spurred by a personal interest in the pecan tree in his own yard, he pays homage to a subject of particular interest (and pleasure) to Texans." - Texas Books in Review "Historian and writer James McWilliams proves an expert guide to the history of 'America's most economically significant tree.'" - Country Gardens's 'Gardener's Bookshelf' "Food historian McWilliams, sparked by the realization that he knew nothing about the wild pecan tree that dominated his backyard, wrote this volume as an endevour of curiosity. Delving into various aspects of the Carya illinoinensis (named for Illinois, a fertile area for these idigenous tres) and their nuts, the book treats readers to a multidimensional exploration of a suprisingly fascinating subject [...] McWilliams marches through American (and pre-American) history, viewing all through the lens of the pecan, and in doing so exposes the very personality of the tree and nut analogous to Americans themselves: willful, hardened, wild and dynamic. Summing Up: High recommended." - Choice
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If you like pecans, this is worth a read. McWilliams emphasizes the American-ness of this nut, and has some good sections on its history, including utilization by native peoples. The first portion is history and natural history, and the last two thirds, roughly, describes how an industry built up, with better varieties (grafted once discovered, because the wild pecans don't grow identically to the parent tree). Wild groves grew in some sizable areas of the South, near streams and weren't cut because they had flood tolerance. Nuts from these wild trees were the start of the pecan industry, with commercial varieties overtaking the wild nuts only gradually (but now the wild trees are being destroyed and with it, some threat to genetic diversity).
A big market change is very recent, the sudden rise of a very large market for pecans in China, so large as to drive up prices.
The nuts are endangered bow, McWilliams says. The loss of wild trees will eliminate genetic diversity, and the industry pattern of heavy doses of fungicide and insecticide is leading to apparently rapid insect and disease resistance.
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