Years ago, my family and I were traveling in Sicily and came across a grove of nude trees surrounded by layers of stacked bark. We pulled off the road to examine the naked trees and figured out we were in a cork oak forest. Cork trees can be stripped of their bark every nine years to make products like wine corks. In fact, the next time you have an all-natural cork, count the number of lines on it, and you will know how many years the grower waited between bark harvests. I wrote a story about it here. Before seeing this grove, I had never considered where corks came from.
The same is true for pecans. Until recently, I never considered how pecans, or any nuts for that matter, were commercially harvested.
My curiosity was first sparked a few weeks ago when I saw a video on Instagram of my friend, yoga teacher Mary Thorstad, picking pecans off the lawn of her parents’ home in Georgia using a quaint collecting device.
Mary described how much she delighted in the idea of picking edible food off the lawn. She said the pecans were little treasures waiting to be found, like manna from heaven. It is a task she has enjoyed doing since childhood. I remember wondering if all pecans were harvested from the ground, or if this device was just a child’s way of picking up a few fallen pecans like you might do when gathering apples from under a tree.
This past weekend, my husband and I visited friends in Como, Mississippi. Como borders the Mississippi Delta to the west, Oxford to the southeast, and Memphis to the north.
We arrived late in the evening. As we drove up the driveway, my husband commented on the stately old oak and pecan trees that lined the moonlit driveway. Later, he asked our friends, Denise and Sledge Taylor, about the mature trees and whether they picked the pecans. They proceeded to tell us a few delightful stories about townspeople coming by to pick pecans over the years. Sledge said it was not uncommon to come home to find a sack of pecans on their front porch. It meant someone had come by and picked some for themselves and, as a token of appreciation, picked a sack for the tree-owners. Denise told us that once they came home to find homemade pecan pies on their front porch instead of the customary gunny sack. They were thrilled. I thought I’d be mighty pleased with a sack of pecans, but that was when I had the misperception that people harvested pecans by climbing ladders and using specialty pole-pickers to harvest them, a job I was not prepared to do.
Then I learned pecans were harvested off the ground even when grown commercially. Pecans grow in a husk in clusters at the end of branches. As the husk matures, it splits open, and the nut drops out. In commercial orchards, farmers use a mechanical tree-shaker to nudge the tree into dropping their nuts on the ground. After they fall, large-scale sweepers are brought in to collect them.
Sensing how taken I was with seeing pecan trees for the first time, Sledge drove us to a commercial pecan orchard with acres full of mature trees. The trees were planted on a grid. The oldest were planted in the 1890s on a 60 x 60 grid. The younger trees were planted in the 1940s on a 45 x 45 grid. Sledge said they plant them even closer now. We loved that whichever direction we viewed them from, the trees lined up, both in rows and on the diagonal. Truly, a marvel to behold.
Meanwhile, we harvested 8.5 pounds of nuts from Sledge and Denise’s driveway.
We used a sweeper device Sledge kept for harvesting nuts from his yard.
It looks and works a lot like a tennis ball sweeper.
Sledge said not to pick pecans that still had their husks on as the husk would keep the shell moist and the nut inside would likely be rotten.
After we arrived back in Nashville, I immediately set to picking the pecan meat out of the shells. It took every bit of two hours to pick through our eight pounds of unshelled nuts. I ended up with almost two pounds of tender, tasty pecan meats. Manna from heaven, indeed.
It was tedious work. Granted, the tools I used were not for industrial use. They were more like cocktail party fare from the Fifties.
Today, except for my stained and scratched fingers, I’ve forgotten about the amount of work that went into cleaning out the shells. But man oh man, as I was shelling, I was thinking, I get it, now. I know why Denise was even happier to get the homemade pies!
Thanks to our hosts, Denise and Sledge Taylor who live on a beautiful farm in the “hill country” a place with never-ending vistas of pastures and planted fields. This photo was taken at their cotton gin. That’s a whole nother story!
Tried and True Recipes Calling for Pecans
I thought about The Pecan Man, a novel by Casey Dandridge Selleck while writing this post. The story takes place in a small Southern town in Florida. The main character is a spunky, well-respected, and charming woman who tries to do right by a homeless man who picks pecans from lawns in the 1970s. The audiotape has an excellent reader.
Always check the website for the most current version of a recipe.
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