It’s time to put this nutty national debate to rest.
We can all agree that the pecan is a noble American. A species of hickory, the pecan is the only major native North American nut, and has been an important food source for centuries. Native Americans brewed an alcoholic beverage called Powcohicora, from which we get the word “hickory.” American colonists valued pecans highly; both Washington and Jefferson had wild pecan groves. But despite this history, the species was one of the last plants domesticated by humans beings. Georgians began planting the first groves of “improved” pecans in the 1880’s, Texans followed in the 1910’s. Today, the United States produces about 90% of all pecans worldwide.
With such a treasure, why can’t we agree on how to pronounce it? Is a pecan a “PI-KAHN,” or is a pecan a “PEE-CAN”? To find out, we visited the website of the National Pecan Association, which provided us…nothing. No position whatsoever on how to pronounce pecan. (You can only imagine it’s a pretty hot topic at the Association, if they can’t even address it on the website…) Undeterred, we consulted the almighty Google. And found multiple sources that explained the word “pecan” comes from the French “pacane,” which in turn comes from the Illinois word “pakani,” meaning a nut that requires a stone to break. Sounded pretty definitive. And then you throw in the common joke, told by southerners – that you eat a “PI-KAHN” but you keep a “PEE-CAN” under your bed so you don’t have to go to the outhouse – and you have a solid argument. Case closed: “PI-KAHN” it is.
Satisfied, we kicked back in front of the TV, tuned to the Food Network. And there she was: Paula Dean, southern food expert, who was born in Albany GA and lived most of her life in Savannah GA. She was pulling together all the ingredients for something delicious. A dish comprised of pecans, corn syrup, brown sugar, eggs and vanilla. A true southern classic. And then she said it: Yep, Paula was putting together a “PEE-CAN” pie. Dang.
We gave up. We whipped up her recipe. Took a bite. And realized: pecans are for eating, they are not for saying.