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.

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.

• • •

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.)

She had lived in Pecan Grove for four and a half years, but wasn't sure how much longer she would be here. Developers had bought the trailer park next door and were building six story condos, though, fittingly, getting approval to cut down all the pecan trees was causing a delay.

I picked up 20 pounds in an hour at Pecan Grove on what for me was a mission of nostalgia. The place where I grew up in North Carolina had five large pecan trees, enough to give a grade-schooler a constant cycle of chores – raking the nut-producing tassels in the spring and an almost never-ending cascade of leaves and nut casings in the fall. And, of course, picking up, cracking, and shelling buckets full of nuts.

The day before in Austin, I had called my folks in North Carolina. My father had a direct reply when I mentioned the bumper pecan crop in Texas: "Bring some to us!" A late spring frost and the drought that followed had destroyed much of the crop in the Carolinas this year.

Shaking my cache out into a box, I caught an approving nod from an old gentleman out for a walk. Holding a pecan scooper in one hand – what looked like a Slinky stuck to the end of a stick – he paused to harvest a stray nut on the curb. That night a cold front with 20-mile-per-hour winds blew threw, shaking lose a new harvest of nuts. The man, Bruce Gardner, lived around the block, and I saw him out in his yard that afternoon.

Mr. Gardner, 96, grew up on a pecan plantation in Texas with 12,000 trees, which his father managed until the farm failed in the Great Depression. Gardner's yard in Austin, where he has lived since 1953, has 10 pecan trees. He planted three, squirrels planted the rest.

"When I retired from the highway department 30 years ago, I thought I would make me a little money and put a sign with 'Pecans for Sale' in my yard," he said. In a good year, he could harvest 200 pounds, "but that's more work than I wanted to keep up with." Now he gives all the pecans to ladies at his church and the senior center where he volunteers.

• • •

Bearing 50 pounds of pecans in two garbage bags, I pulled into the senior activity center off N. Lamar Boulevard at 10 a.m. the next day – the place, according to Mr. Gardner, to have them cracked for 50 cents a pound. A dozen people were already waiting in line. "We're only taking them on Mondays and Fridays now – by the end of the day, we'll have 5,000 pounds of nuts to crack," Bryon Thornton told me.

In a storage room out back, Willie Williams was feeding paper grocery bags full of nuts into the tops of five pecan-cracking machines, contraptions with chain-link conveyer belts that make a din like clothes dryers full of loose change. Mr. Williams, a retired Navy veteran and John Deere dealer, makes chocolate fudge with his pecans, using a recipe by Mamie Eisenhower that he had clipped from a newspaper while her husband was president.

Back in New Orleans, where I live now, the centuries' old grid of streets is more closely packed than the suburban lawns of south Austin. Live oaks predominate and banana trees offer the only fruit that might interest a hunter-gatherer. Earlier this week, though, I was in the Lower Ninth Ward, where I met Gloria Mae Guy. She survived the levee break by clinging to the roof of a neighbor's house for nine hours. Gloria showed me her lot on Tennessee Street, where the front steps are all that remain of her house of 30 years, with one exception – a lone pecan tree in the backyard. She misses the garden where she planted okra and squash, cauliflower and sweet potatoes. But she still had a bumper crop of pecans this year. "I'm getting me some to make pralines," she said.

I filled my pockets, too.

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