Lessons from the pecan harvest part II
Published 6:34 pm Monday, November 15, 2021
In last week’s column I shared how much I enjoyed picking up pecans and walking through the neighborhoods I frequented as a child to gather pecans from the trees that grew there. I learned how to identify a few types of pecans by their shapes and sizes. I also learned from my grandmothers the many ways pecans could be used. My favorite way to eat pecans was as a snack, or the whole pecan halves that some of the best cake bakers in town, who were our neighbors, would put on top of a chocolate frosted cake.
My Grandmother Lee who lived in Belhaven had many pecan trees in her yard. She knew many ways to use pecans and she would share stories of her childhood in the early 1900’s and how her family used them.
She said since pecans were the most plentiful starting around Thanksgiving, the pecan harvest was sometimes called the ‘Slaves Thanksgiving.’
She was born thirty-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and learned many things from much older adults in her family about how enslaved people created all kinds of foods to keep their families fed during slavery times.
Her grandmother made pecan biscuits and that was one of my grandmother’s favorites as a young girl. Dried pecans were finely ground into a flour and mixed with a little white flour, baking powder, lard, buttermilk and chicken fat, made into biscuits that she said were good eating. Her mother made pecan gravy to go over the biscuits.
Her mother would even make a ‘meat-like substitute’ out of pecans to make meat balls, sausages and meat-like patties. I knew you could make meat- like dishes from grains, beans and nuts because Milt often makes vegan ‘meat like’ dishes made from lentils, chick peas or walnuts, but I was very surprised to find you can make pecan based ‘meat substitutes’ dishes almost the same way my grandmother described the recipes her mother and grandmother used.
There were other ways her family used pecans for food. They would boil the edible part of the pecan to make a ‘milk-like’ substitute, and they would toast the pecan halves, grind them up to make a coffee like-beverage. Finely ground pecans made into meal was used to coat fish or chicken before frying, and some of the finely ground pecans were cooked with corn meal to make a hot cooked cereal called pecan mush.
Pecans were used for health and beauty products too. Grandma Lee pressed pecans for the oil and used it on her skin. She said the pecan oil was really good for the skin when working in hot tobacco fields because it kept her skin from drying out.
She also made some of the oil into some kind of liniment and anti-inflammatory medicine for her arthritis. She used pecan oil to help condition leather goods and to smooth out the leather’s color.
Her other uses for pecans included using the black pecan hulls to make hair dye, using the green hulls to dye fabric and using pecan shells along with other wood in a smoke house to cure meat. Nothing about the pecan harvest was wasted. I really love how creative the older generations were. And I’m grateful I can learn to do the same things now.
Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.