MIKE KEELER: “Pi-KAHN,” or “PEE-can”? Who Knows!

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We’ve learned that pandemics are times of intense personal and communal distress, softened somewhat by the simple act of cooking. So, in the interest of calm and unity, we’d like to put one of our nutty national debates to rest.

We can all agree that the pecan is a noble American. A species of hickory, the pecan is the most prevalent 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. Georgians began planting the first groves of “improved” pecans in the 1880’s, and 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 and searched the Net for some good recipes. 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. And then she said it: Yep, Paula was putting together a “PEE-can” pie. Dang. (Maybe it’s a lesser-known reason for her cancellation.)

Regardless of how you pronounce it, pecans ain’t cheap, and organic ones are hard to find. But you can order them online.

As for a pie recipe for this southern classic, we suggest you reorient yourself north, to the Adirondacks. There’s this guy named Chef John, who is a graduate of Paul Smith’s and a one-time chef at the Casa del Sol in Saranac Lake. These days he offers up recipes for just about everything at his website “Food Wishes.” It’s a great resource to help get you through home confinement. Here’s his pecan pie:

https://www.allrecipes.com/video/4572/chef-johns-pecan-pie/

You’re welcome.

And so we conclude: pecans are for eating, they are not for saying.

Mike Keeler

– Mike Keeler