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Pecan Pie for the Holidays

November 14, 2011

A strong storm broke a large branch off of the pecan tree next to our driveway and sent the heavy log crashing through the rear window of our daughter-in-law’s automobile. The dislocated limb became expensive firewood.

When a second bough fell one hot summer night for no apparent reason, Clare insisted on putting a “No Parking” sign beneath the tree. After our friend Todd Kury at Upstate Arborist examined the aging pecan, he advised that we watch and wait.

After several weeks another branch fell. Two nights later, during a heavy fall rain, the fourth and largest limb crashed to the ground. One of our sons advised us to remove the old tree before it could cause more damage. I could not imagine taking such drastic measures. After all, it had been planted by my grandfather.

I called Todd again and asked how much longer we needed to wait. After another house call, Todd recommended surgery. I agreed. From ropes secured high in the tree, Todd swung like a monkey, chainsaw in hand, as he lopped off broken and damaged appendages. He noted that the tree promised an unusually large harvest of pecans. The heaviness of the branches loaded with green nuts and the stress of several summers of drought had caused the fractures.

The elderly tree seems healthy now, and even with the pruning, it will bear an abundant harvest this season. When pecan trees were loaded with nuts in the fall, my grandfather would forecast a hard, cold winter. We’ll see if that prediction holds true this year.

The pecan tree grows naturally in North America. Many Indian tribes used them as a major food source. By the late 1700s, cultivated pecans were featured in the gardens of colonists. George Washington grew pecan trees at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson established a grove at Monticello.

Throughout the South an orchard producing pecans of various sizes and shapes was a part of many farms and plantations.  Occasionally, a wild tree with unusually large, thin-shelled nuts was identified. Known as paper-shells, these became the stock for further development.

Abner Landrum, a physician born in the Edgefield District of South Carolina in 1785, is credited with the first successful grafting of pecan trees. In 1822, he grafted small native pecans onto the hardy stock of native hickory trees. The resulting stronger trees further advanced the pecan industry in the southern United States.

A Louisiana slave named Antoine, by grafting, propagated a variety known as Centennial. It was so named because it was awarded the Best Pecan Exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.

Before the Civil War, the boulevards of many Lowcountry plantation homes in South Carolina were lined with pecan trees. My forebears, George Jay Washington McCall of Welsh Neck near the confluence of the Black and the Pee Dee Rivers, Moses Sanders Haynsworth from Darlington County, Thomas Oregon Lawton who lived near Estill, and Robert E. Lee Woodward from Barnwell County, all had pecan groves.

Each autumn families across the South gathered the nuts that had fallen to the ground. They sat together on the front porch in rocking chairs or on joggling boards, cracking and picking pecans. Though plentiful, pecans were considered a delicacy. They were a favorite snack roasted and salted, but they were also included in numerous recipes. My mother added pecans to apple salad, sweet potato soufflé, and banana bread.

The tradition continues to the present.  Pecan pie is the dessert of choice for a Southern table at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Southern pecan pie recipes often include molasses. This one uses dark Karo syrup.


Plantation Pecan Pie


  • 1 9-inch pie shell, chilled for an hour if freshly made
  • 2 heaping cups toasted pecans
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup dark Karo syrup
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 stick melted butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


  1. The secret to this recipe is toasting the pecans. Spread two cups of pecans on a cookie sheet. Set oven to broil. Watch closely until brown. Careful, they will burn easily. Then take them out and turn them over a few times and put them back in for another minute or so.
  2. Preheat oven to 375°F. Spread toasted pecans along the bottom of the pie shell. Mix the remaining ingredients by hand and pour over pecans. The pecans will rise to the surface of the pie.
  3. Bake at 375°F for 40-45 minutes until the filling has set. About 20 minutes into the cooking, tent the edges of the pie crust with aluminum foil to prevent burning.
  4. Remove pie from the oven and let it cool completely.
  5. Top this Southern favorite with a dollop of real whipped cream.


Kirk H. Neely
© November 2011



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