This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 6, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
My maternal grandparents owned a large pecan orchard, which my grandmother inherited from her parents. It was a natural grove of native Texas pecans, and it had been there for a long, long time, so it was no cultivated orchard. A native Texas pecan tree can bear edible seeds for more than 300 years. My great grandfather told stories about Spanish symbols having been carved into the trunk of some of the trees, and since the Old Spanish Trail ran right through the property, it was assumed these were secret markings to reveal the location of buried Spanish treasure. Because trespassers were constantly digging around the trees, my great grandfather chopped down the ones with markings, -- or so I was told by my family.
Pecan lore had been passed on down from generation to generation, and we all learned something from that pecan orchard, which probably came into our family in the 1870’s or 1880’s. Each year, we would have a pecan harvest, and take the pickings to a pecan buyer in Giddings (I assume), and the first thing I learned was that harvesting pecans was a back-breaking job.
But native pecan trees have many secrets to reveal. For example, it was an indisputable fact, as far as my family was concerned, that pecan trees had a special kind of wisdom. You could count on having a frost or freeze before Easter until the native pecans started budding out; the hybrids were stupid and would bud out before a freeze, but never a Texas native! You could always rely on the wisdom of the native and not start your spring garden too early.
Native pecan trees had good genes, so they had good wood. I never saw the limbs of a native break off in a high wind, but I saw hybrid limbs break off frequently. The Texas native being a species of hickory, its wood is hard, and, used to make coals for barbecuing, it gives the meat a heavenly taste, unattainable with any other kind of wood.
I noticed out on the farm that my great grandfather’s smokehouse was like a log cabin, made of logs, and I’m pretty sure they were pecan-tree logs. The logs in that building showed no rot whatsoever, which was not true of some of the other buildings made from lumber yard wood. The planks in the farmhouse, which we tore down and moved to Dime Box, were so hard you couldn’t drive a nail in them, -- or at least I couldn’t as a kid. I like to think that they were planks made from pecan wood; they are still as strong as petrified wood in my grandparents’/mother’s old house across the street from the Catholic church in Dime Box.
An important thing the native pecans taught us is that these small native nuts are far more delicious than any hybrid you can plant, buy or eat. They have a rich, heavenly taste, impossible to equal by any other nut in the world! Over the years, when my friends would boast of their fine hybrids, I would challenge them to try the natives, and their reply was usually that the natives were too, too small to be worth the agony of picking them up. How foolish they were! If only they would have tasted one of those too, too small Texas natives, they would have given up hybrids for good! My mother concluded there was no nut like a Texas nut!
My father taught me a special way to cut open the native pecans with your pocket knife so that two perfect, unbroken halves fell out each time. He would cut the top off and then the bottom, and then slice open the side. The only problem is that it takes an extraordinarily sharp pocket knife. I was never able to hone my pocket knife blade to be sharp enough, but if I could have, I would have cut my fingers off. Only my father, squirrel-skinning champion of Lee County, could handle such sharpness!
These wonderful, incomparable qualities of the Texas native pecans are no doubt the reason the pecan tree was officially made the State Tree of Texas in 1919!
San Saba, Texas, claims to be the Pecan Capital of the World, but I challenge them on that. I have never eaten San Saba pecans, so I don’t know if they’d pass the taste test of Lexington pecans or the natives growing in my backyard here in East Bernard. Only problem with my tree is I sold it to the plethora of squirrels in my yard for the price of many delightful days of squirrel watching. And so I now buy native Texas pecans for me to eat from the Pecan Shop in MacGregor, Texas (pecanshop.com).
My tree came from Lee County, and so my squirrels dine on Lee Count natives, while I dine on MacGregor native pecans, and I’m still learning about nuts.
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.