American Nut: A History of the Pecan

The history of the pecan, as much an American nut as any, is one of hardiness and adaptability to new situations and tastes.

| January 2014

  • The pecan has been called an American nut, one that is “intolerant of competition” from other fruit and nut crops.
    Photo by Fotolia/
  • "The Pecan" from acclaimed author and historian James McWilliams explores the history of America's most important commercial nut.
    Cover courtesy University of Texas Press

The Pecan (University of Texas Press, 2013) is lively look at the history of a true American nut, from the primordial Southern groves to the contemporary Chinese marketplace. James McWilliams begins by describing how important the pecan was for Native Americans—to whom an average harvest carried as food value as 150,000 bison. After centuries of harvesting in the wild, the “improvement” process began, and it took less than a hundred years for the pecan to be fully domesticated. In this excerpt from the introduction, McWilliams writes of the pecan’s genesis and how the nut’s natural attributes led to its prominence and popularity.

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An American Nut

Here is an intriguing hypothesis: nuts may have made our prehuman ancestors smarter. Smarter because the nut forms in a shell and our hominid forebears had to think a bit about how to extract it. Thought led to innovation. Innovation to nutrition. Nutrition to greater intelligence. That's the idea, anyway. Granted, finding a stone flat enough to shatter a nut doesn't really qualify as unique cognition—apes do it all the time. But not unlike the way a seagull, after multiple attempts, finally figures out how high to soar before dropping the clam, it required trial and error. Smash the nut too fiercely, whack it in the wrong spot with the wrong rock, and shell shards splinter into the meat. Get it just right, though, with the right rock on the right seam with the right pressure, and you've just opened a new chapter in culinary history. When the first nut was cracked, the history of eating, it seems fair to say, changed significantly.

We have no idea when or where it happened. No idea whatsoever who the first opposable-thumbed hominid was who successfully liberated a nut from its shell. However, it stands to reason that whenever it took place, life changed for the better. Prehuman and human history is marked by major transformations: the harnessing of fire, the domestication of wheat, irrigation, animal breeding, refrigeration, genetic modification, the advent of the Twinkie. Rarely included among these prehistoric and historic milestones is the simple act of cracking open a nut. This fundamental historical act, I submit, deserves its due. The cracked nut may not have profoundly altered the course of human events, but it played an important role in shaping material and economic life for hundreds of millions of people for hundreds and thousands of years.

Of course, nuts didn't evolve shells to improve the minds of our prehistoric ancestry. On the contrary, a nut is a fruit with a single seed that's indehiscent—it does not open upon reaching maturity. Its hard exterior protects the seed (which is technically a one-seeded dry fruit) from the elements. The fact that we managed to break the nut's barrier and, over thousands of years, enjoy its fruit and, over the last hundred years, dictate the genetic course of its development doesn't mean that nuts lost and humans won. Nature, which is defined by unintended consequences, really doesn't follow that kind of logic. Plus, nature is ultimately too elusive and too powerful to assume a subservient role to a recent arrival such as the human, no matter how impressive his brain or how advanced his technologies.

When humans and plants enter into a relationship, a level of humility is forced upon us as we become integrated into unfamiliar natural processes. A mutually beneficial balance, never perfect, is the only way to ensure that the relationship—much less the plant itself—enjoys some semblance of longevity. For most of history, humans have responsibly propagated nuts. Nuts, in return, have generously, if more passively, improved the health of humans. They have thrived. We have thrived. How long this balance will persist into the future is, as we will see in the last chapter of this story, very much an open question, one we should probably be thinking about more seriously than we do.

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