Residents of Austin, Texas, harvest pecans – one nut at a time
The best crop in 40 years sends local scouring neighborhoods for the best bounty to make pies, cakes, brownies, and fudge.
Standing in a friend's driveway here recently, I watched in a lingering twilight as a car pulled up to the curb. Two doors swung open and out stepped a man wearing a baker's hat and apron and a girl about 6 years old, both bearing plastic grocery bags.Skip to next paragraph
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The girl took off for the front yard, a cherubic hunter-gatherer intent on plunder. Her dad, aware of social niceties but no less focused, stuck to the sidewalk, running the toe of his shoe across the mat of leaves until another of the season's buttery, hard-shelled morsels revealed itself.
"You mind if I pick up some pecans?" he asked, just a bit sheepish. A dusting of flour whitened his pants.
"No, not at all," I said. Was he making pies for the holiday?
"Yes, pecan pies," he said, just as his daughter came back toting her grocery bag, climbing into the car for another hit-and-run nut sortie.
It's pecan season in Texas, a time when lots of folks who wouldn't consider themselves blessed with green thumbs become momentary farmers. Pecan groves and plantations dot the open landscape of central Texas, where some small towns have made the nut a tourist attraction. For unabashed fans in cities like Austin, backyards, city parks, and strangers' driveways become venues for an open season on the savory nuggets.
Many people, to be sure, find the nuts an unavoidable nuisance, crunching underfoot when walking from their car to the house, dropping through the night on their rooftops. Yet no matter what their orientation – aficionado or antagonist – it has been hard to avoid at least some encounter with the nut this year, since Texas is producing its largest crop in 40 years.
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Kinney Avenue runs through a part of south Austin where blue-collar neighborhoods of low-slung bungalows and modest ranch houses are giving way to multimillion-dollar McMansions. Though many trees have come down during the transformation, the back streets of south Austin are still woodsy, and pecans – the state tree of Texas – feature prominently.
Down the street from where I was staying, a woman named Norma had half a dozen trees in her yard and was sitting in a chair under her carport, shelling nuts. "I've lived in this house for 40 years, and these are the most pecans this year that I've ever seen," she told me, using the Texas pronunciation "pe-kahn," as opposed to the Carolina (where I grew up) "pea-can."
Norma introduced me to the wide variety of Texas pecans – from circular little balls to a freakish hybrid nearly as long as your thumb. She had already put up 75 quart bags of nuts and sold 10 at the VFW hall. "I made up my mind when I got married that I wanted a house with pecan trees," said Norma, her hands working the cracked nut over a tin baking pan. "It's just a hobby. I love to pick up pecans. I'm at peace when I get out there and start picking up pecans."
Biking through south Austin on a balmy afternoon, my problem was finding a public space where other hunter-gatherers had yet to pass. Front yards with large pecan trees were invariably raked clean. A vacant lot with a particularly fecund tree had a "No Trespassing" sign staked out front. On another street, a guy with a bulging bag of nuts was trying to open his car door with a coat hanger, his hit-and-run foray apparently having gone awry.
I found my mother lode on Barton Springs Road at the Pecan Grove trailer park, with its 100-plus pecan trees. "If you want some nice ones, then come by my lot – No. 16," a woman checking her mailbox told me when she saw my plastic bag. Her name was Betsy and she worked as a professional clown. ("Doodles the Clown" was painted on the side of her minivan.)