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Southern-ness questioned over the pecan

January 25, 2011

I have always been proud of being a Mississippian, and in a broader context, a Southerner. I have carried high the banner of my roots whether I lived in North Carolina (where people back home asked me when I was coming south again) or across the world. But there was a time when my Southern-ness was questioned, simply due to my dislike for one nut: the pecan.
There seems to be a general agreement in the food world that the pecan has a certain attachment to the South. Whenever I listen to a food show based above the Mason-Dixon Line or on the Left Coast and Southern cooking is the topic, the pecan pie is oft-mentioned. Another classic is the New Orleans praline. But despite the history, I’ve just never really liked them. Even with the Grand Dame of the Peeples Pecan Company as my Cub Scout den mother, I could not be convinced.
At first, well meaning family members and friends would try to push me into trying various desserts that included pecans, using the tired old expression, “you can’t even taste them.” Well, I would think loudly (as to be polite), what’s the point of putting them in if you can’t taste them? In any case, it was more texture than taste that bothered me. Eventually, they gave up, and as my reputation preceded me, the same family members began making concessions. Only half of Mama’s lime-green jello salad with pineapple and cheese would be topped with pecans. Ditto for the icing on her chocolate sheath cake. Even Granny would leave them out of her desserts from time to time.
What of today? I have grown up a little bit. I love a good toasted and spiced pecan, probably because the texture has changed. And I can’t get enough B&R Pralines and Cream ice cream – again, candied to another texture. Not so with the other “bad nut” of my life. I still abhor coconut.
My mother tells a tale of a day when I was still eating in a high chair. We were in a restaurant in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and she noticed I was running my tongue around inside my mouth as if I was trying to locate something with it. As moms are wont to do, she crammed her finger in there (at some risk, as I was wont to bite people at that age– just ask … never mind) and found the offending object – a flake of coconut. This was a real mystery, as nobody at the table was eating anything with coconut in it. Since that day, the taste, texture, discussion, and even prolonged thought of coconut has led to gagging. Really.
Shortly after I moved to Asheville, North Carolina I decided to go down to Charlotte to spend a weekend with my Great Aunt Hallie. My brother, Rusty, was in law school at Wake Forest and met me there. Aunt Hallie was a grand lady of the South. She grew up in Fulton, Mississippi, but had lived in Charlotte long enough to take on the accent of the region. In other words, she didn’t pronounce any of her “r’s”.
On our first evening of the visit, after the meal, she brought out two desserts – she wanted us to have options because, of course, options normally guarantee that there will be at least one thing the guest will enjoy. She unveiled a pecan pie and a coconut cake. My heart sank as I frantically tried to come up with ways that I could refuse both and not offend my genteel great aunt, or throw up. In the meantime, Rusty – who had grown out of his childhood dislike for the same things and knew that I had not, could barely keep from laughing out loud. I chose the pecan pie: the lesser of two evils. As it turned out, the pie was mostly Karo syrup and the nuts had transformed into pecan-shaped candy. Whew. Disaster avoided.
The next day we went to Cousin Emily’s house for lunch. I knew that Aunt Hallie had brought the leftover pie and cake with her and I was bracing myself for another small sliver of pecan pie. When it came time for dessert, though, Emily announced that she also had some sort of chocolate éclair in her freezer that she could add to the dessert menu. I was greatly relieved, until Aunt Hallie said, “I’m sure he’d just as soon have another piece of pie, Em.” And my fate was sealed. The éclair went back in the freezer and my tolerance of all things pecan-related began to develop.
Against my will, my coconut tolerance factor has also been tested. A good friend (so I thought) who knew better offered a granola bar on a hiking trip. There was a suspicious element in the texture, but I attributed it to buttery oats, which can sometimes mimic the taste/texture combo of coconut. After eating a second bar, she announced with a disturbing degree of glee that I had just eaten the forbidden fruit. Never mind that I was nauseous for the remainder of the hike, just knowing what I had ingested. I forgave her and we are still friends. Further tests are not required. Please.

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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