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This is the perfect time of year for delicious pecan pies! Unfortunately, if I made such a tasty and expensive confection, I would eat four slices and then the rest would sit sadly in the refrigerator (since my roommate wants to live forever and thus fears Crisco and corn syrup). So I will hoard my precious bag of pecans for Thanksgiving and instead blog about the magnificent pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)–an Apollo among trees, which is as beautiful and large as it is beloved and useful! Pecan trees are members of the Hickory genus, Carya, which is named for an archaic Greek tree-nut goddess (whom I need to blog about another day). While there are a few Hickory species in Mexico, Canada, China, and Indochina, the majority are native to the United States (which probably indicates that the trees originated here and spread elsewhere). Pecan trees are native to the southeastern and southcentral United States and spread down into northern Mexico. The word “pecan” is a borrow word from Algonquian (!) and it means “nut so hard it takes a stone to crack it open” (Algonquian, evidently, is masterful at compressing hunter-gatherer concepts into extreme brevity). Pecans have been planted and used as a food source by Native American peoples for a long, long time so it is hard to tell where exactly the tree originated within its range.

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Rich in proteins and healthy fats and requiring no preparation to eat, pecans are an almost perfect food for humans (in stark opposition to Crisco and corn syrup). Pecans keep fresh within their shells for an entire growing season or longer. The nuts contain protein, sterols, antioxidants, and omega-6 fatty acids. They provide two-to-five times as much food energy as lean meat. Eating a daily handful of pecans lowers “bad” cholesterol levels in a manner similar to statin drugs, and also, “may delay age-related muscle nerve degeneration.” I should probably just eat my bag of pecans and live eternally, but who really wants to be around for the nightmarish robopocalypse (or forgo pie)? Out of convention, I have been calling pecans “nuts”, but the edible part is technically a drupe—a fruit with a single large pit much like a peach or plum. I won’t even mention the rich buttery flavor which is a perfect complement to sweets such as…well, I said I wouldn’t talk about it. Like walnut and hickory (which are close cousins), pecan also makes a magnificent lumber–although it seems a waste to use such a beautiful & useful tree for furniture and cabinetry.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

Unlike most familiar fruit and nut trees, pecan trees get big! A mature tree can grow up to 44 meters in height (144 ft) with an equally wide span. Just imagine a living green sphere the size of a 15 story building. The trees live to more than 300 years of age, so there are pecan trees out there older than our republic (and arguably in better shape)!

A pecan tree growing over George Washington's mansion at Mount Vernon

A pecan tree growing over George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon

According to my sources, pecans were not domesticated until the 1880s. However, considering how perfect they are for humans, I can’t help wonder if they coevolved with us quite a bit over the last 14,000 years. Or are we more squirrel-like than we wish to admit? At any rate, today the United States accounts for up to 95 percent of the world’s pecan crop which exceeds 200 thousand tons. The crop is harvested in mid to late October (which probably explains why I could even afford my bag of shelled pecans). Pecans are a perfect food, a perfect timber, a perfect tree. I’m not sure if the Algonquians were right to choose such a spare name—perhaps the pecan tree should be named for a goddess after all. Unlike the monstrous Chinese invader, pecan is the true tree of heaven.

PecanGrove

A Pistachio Tree Beside Ancient Ruins in Turkey (photo by cemalsepici)

Only two nuts are mentioned in the Bible.  The almond is referred to frequently, but the pistachio (Pistacia vera) is mentioned only once, in Genesis (when Joseph’s starving brothers are trying to curry favor with an Egyptian official, not knowing that they are dealing with the brother they wronged).  It is appropriate that pistachios are in the first book of the Bible, the nuts have been eaten by humankind since the depths of prehistory (and they were probably eaten by near-relatives among the hominids before our turn on the scene).   Pistachio is a desert tree which is highly tolerant of drought and saline soil.  The deciduous trees grow up to 10 meters (33 feet) tall. They are wild throughout the Middle East from Syria to the Indus valley–but their original range has been blurred by their popularity as a cultivated plant.  Since they are one of humankind’s wild foodstuffs from before the invention of agriculture, human dissemination of pistachio seeds is a “natural” vector (although the very nature of that sentence casts the meaning of some of our implicit assumptions concerning nature into question).

An Iranian Merchant with his Pistachios

The route which Pistachios took into Western Europe is reflected in the etymology of the English word.  The Online Etymology Dictionary summarizes it thus:  “pistachio: 1590s, from It. pistacchio, from L. pistacium “pistachio nut,” from Gk. pistakion, from pistake “pistachio tree,” from Pers. pista “pistachio tree.”  It seems Greeks first brought the seed westward, and its subsequent progress across Europe can actually be traced from classical history sources. At the same time, the nuts were also heading east along the Silk Road: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China are all major producers today.  Pistachios originated somewhere in Persia, and Iran remains the largest producer and exporter of the nut. Speaking of exports, pistachios can be dangerous to transport in bulk containers. Because of their high fat and low water content, large quantities of the nuts can sometimes self-combust!

Its long, long history as a human food aside, pistachios are delicious.  The clam-like seeds pop open when they are ripe (although that is a human-selected trait) and the exposed seed has a brownish pink skin–which in turn reveals a pale creamy green flesh inside. Pistachios are members of the Anacardiaceae family, which includes sumacs and poison ivy.  Like these scary relatives, pistachio plants (and seeds) can contain the oily irritant urushiol—so pistachios sometimes trigger allergies and rashes, however, dieticians assert that the seed is one of the healthier sources of protein and oils.

Dyed and Undyed Pistachios


Traditionally pistachio nuts were dyed red to hide the blemishes made by handpicking, however such false color is no longer necessary (except to placate traditional markets).  The pistachio seed  has given its name to an especially pretty pastel green with pastel yellow undertones (the same hue found inside the nut). Pistachio green is one of my favorite hues.  There is something calm, refreshing, and languorous about the green which speaks to leisurely mild summer afternoons.  I hope you will excuse me, I would like to write more but I am going to go get a pistachio gelato!

A Pistachio-colored Pistachio Gelato

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