Natural Selections: Carya illinoinensis

What’s more American than apple pie? The pecan, that’s what. Native Americans and Confederate soldiers brewed them. George Washington  and Thomas Jefferson planted them. They even made it to outer space. In today’s world, we can’t begin to imagine a holiday table without one of its pies or a Baldwin County backroad without its orchards.

GIVEN NAME “Pecan” comes from the Native American Algonquin word “pacane” meaning “all nuts requiring a stone to crack.” Your big rock is just a caveman’s nutcracker.

KERNEL-IN-CHIEF Forget cherry trees — George Washington was a much bigger fan of the pecan variety. He deemed their bounty “Mississippi nuts, ” and supposedly always kept several in his pockets. Washington planted pecan trees gifted to him by fellow countryman, Thomas Jefferson, at his home in Mount Vernon, where at least one such tree remains today.

SPACE NUTS Pecans were the first fresh foods to be eaten in space. Because they are dry, compact, nutritious and easily digestible, packets of the roasted nuts made a moon landing on two Apollo missions in the 1970s.

- Sponsors -

PUNCH DRUNK It’s believed that Native Americans were the first to actively cultivate the trees. They used their harvest as a major source of food during autumnal months and may have even brewed “Powcohicora, ” an intoxicating fermented drink, from them.

LONG HULL Pecan prices have skyrocketed recently thanks to an unprecendented and increasing demand among China’s middle class, who views the nuts as a delicacy, especially during the Chinese New Year.

A DECAF DECOY When Civil War rations were low, Confederate soldiers and civilians from the Southern states were sometimes forced to mix roasted pecan shells with their coffee to help stretch shrinking supplies. (Acorns and cornmeal were also popular stand-ins.) Next time you find yourself groggily cursing at your Keurig, just think of those caffeine-deprived soldiers’painstaking efforts.

Everything in Moderation

Phyllus Justice, registered dietician and manager of the Cancer Center at Providence Hospital, gives us the skinny on these healthy fats.

  • “Pecans have lots of monounsaturated fats, which are basically healthy fats, ” she says. “And they have good amounts of other nutrients.”
  • But don’t eat them with abandon; just five pecan halves pack 50 calories. “The calorie count of pecans is higher than people think, ” Justice says. “People think nuts are healthy so they eat a lot of them. They’re a good snack, but keep it to a handful a day.”
  • “Since you don’t need very many of them, pecans are great on salads or to give a recipe extra crunch.” Justice raves about the recipe below, found on

Pecan-Crusted Salmon

2 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/3 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons Parmesan, grated
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon butter, melted
cucumber and yogurt sauce, if desired

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Place salmon skin side down in a greased 11-by-7-inch baking dish. Spread 1 tablespoon mayonnaise over each fillet.
3. In a small bowl, combine the pecans,  breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley and butter; spoon over salmon.
4. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork. Serve with a cucumber and yogurt sauce, if desired. Makes 2 servings.

text by HALEY POTTS • illustration by kelan mercer

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!