Nutcracker Sweet

My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2016

My mother was fanatical about pecans.

Every year when autumn arrived, we knew what our after-school chore was to be. She handed out paper sacks to my siblings and me and directed us to forage for pecans under the four pecan trees that stood like sentinels near the gate to our backyard. Our mission was to pick as many of the nuts before the sun set on the early, chilly evenings.

After supper, Mama cracked the pecans with an old wooden gadget and piled them up in a box on a TV tray. It was Papa’s job to pick the pecans out of the shells while he watched his favorite television programs. By Thanksgiving, there were a good amount of plastic storage bags in the freezer ready for Mama to make pralines, fudge, pecan pies and cookies not only for gift-giving, but also to offer at the festive occasions during the holidays.

Her love for anything made with pecans was passed on to me. I still have her pecan-cracking device and continue to make good use of it. And although I do make the candies and other sweet goodies from her recipes, I have developed other methods for using the beloved nuts of the South. Several years ago, I co-authored a book Pecans: From Soup to Nuts with the late Keith Courrégé, a bon vivant and a great cook. He and I often got together to cook and share our favorite dishes while we sipped on Old Fashions in his cozy kitchen overlooking Bayou Teche.

He was absolutely devoted to the pecan, which he called the Crown Prince of the Nut Kingdom. His enthusiasm inspired me to research the history of pecans and to experiment using the nut for various applications.

Pecans have long been associated with the South. History tells us that Antoine, a slave gardener at Oak Alley Plantation along the River Road near Vacherie, Louisiana, succeeded in grafting sixteen trees near the plantation mansion in 1846 or 1847. Later he successfully grafted 110 trees. The variety used later was named Centennial. This was an epoch in the history of pecan growing since it was the first successful effort of record to graft pecan trees, and it was the first commercial orchard developed to produce nuts for sale. Louisiana continues to be a huge pecan-producing state. In fact, there is a Pecan Research and Extension Station just outside of Shreveport where 65 of 90 acres are planted with pecan trees. According to its page on the LSU AgCenter’s website, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the facility in 1930 and transferred it to the LSU AgCenter in 1973. Pecan production adds, on average, about $12 million to the Louisiana economy each year. That’s a lot of nuts.

Mama LOVED pecans, but she was also fond of sweet potatoes. Her repertoire of sweet potato recipes are now in my care, and I’m happy to share these with you.

Sweet potatoes (also known as yams) have long been a part of Louisiana’s history and cuisine. It is believed that the sweet potatoes originated in the West Indies and Central America.

According to history, when the French began settling in south Louisiana in 1687, they discovered the native Indians — Attakapas, Alabama, Choctaw and Opelousas tribes —growing and enjoying the tasty, nourishing sweet potatoes. It wasn’t long before the French and Spanish settlers soon made it one of their favorite food items.

It’s no wonder that a variety of sweet potato dishes hold a place of honor on holiday tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. They can be boiled, baked, fried, mashed and combine well with a variety of ingredients to create an endless list of delicious concoctions.

When I was a toddler, Mama and I enjoyed a baked sweet potato, lathered with butter and drizzled with cane syrup, on many a cold autumn afternoon. As I got older, I came to adore them fried, much like French fries, sprinkled with salt and black pepper, or sometimes sugar and cinnamon. Of course, I ate my fair share of them candied, creamed with milk and butter, in pies, and sometimes rolled in honey and chopped pecans. I consumed so much of these golden tuberous roots that I had the nickname of “Patate Douce” well into my teens.

With the holidays staring us in the face, I encourage you to get in your kitchen and rattle some pots and pans! Recipes are from Pecans: From Soup to Nuts published by Pelican Publishing Company, Inc. Available online and at area bookstores.