Having spent many years in the west, Thanksgiving means many things to me, but two stand out – pecans and pomegranates. Every Texan, or even a Texas transplant, ought to relate to the former, since pecans are the state tree, officially designated by the legislature in 1919. Governor James Hogg was so partial to them that he asked that a pecan tree be planted at his grave and the nuts distributed to “the plain folks.” It is said that many a pecan farmer got his start from the bounty of the two trees planted at the head of his grave.
Pecans, a type of hickory, are native to the United States, and fossil remains indicate they even grew in prehistoric times. As far back in history as the 1520s, Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer and survivor of a Galveston Island shipwreck during that period, wrote that the local Indians used pecans as a staple in their diet, grinding them into a nutritious nut meal.
Pecan trees favor moist environments and grew wild and prolifically along many stream banks and river bottoms from Iowa and Indiana into Texas and Mexico long before European settlement. Fast growing, they often attain a height of 75–100 feet. Highly nutritious, pecans are rich in protein, B-vitamins, and minerals.
Their name comes from “pacane,” an Indian word meaning “nut to be cracked with a rock.” Our dictionary lists the pronunciation of pecan two ways: pea-CAHN and pea-CAN (as in tin can.) However, anyone in Texas using the latter pronunciation is quickly marked as one of “them transplants,” or worse, a “durn Yankee!”
Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had pecan trees on their estates, and Washington was said to munch on them constantly. It was the French however, who upon settling in the New Orleans area, elevated the pecan to its highest culinary level, creating both pecan pie and pralines. In my case, even a small piece of either is guaranteed to control my sugar craving for a substantial time.
Writing about the Texas Revolution, Noah Smithwick said that while surrounded by the enemy, the Texans, in a battle preceding the Alamo, took shelter in a pecan grove. As canon shot raked through the trees, the branches were “raining a shower of nuts down upon us … I saw men picking them up and eating them with as little apparent concern as if they were being shaken down by a norther.”
Pomegranates, in contrast to pecans, are not so well known or utilized in Texas. They appear in markets, often in less than sterling condition and somewhat small in size, but my experience shows that most people use them only as decorations, missing out entirely on their succulent taste.
Native to Egypt and from Iran to northern India, pomegranates were introduced and cultivated in ancient times over the whole Mediterranean region, as well as Southeast Asia, Malaysia, the East Indies, and tropical Africa. By 1769 Spanish settlers had introduced pomegranates into California.
A shrub or small tree, pomegranates grow 20-30 feet high, but more often they are only 12-16 feet in height. Their branches are stiff and often spiny, bearing leathery-skinned yellow to bright red fruit 3-5” in diameter, containing clear red, pink or white pulpy kernels that are sweet, somewhat tart, and very juicy. Personally, I like to split the fruit open and strip out the kernels, eating them out of hand. Each little morsel contains a small seed that only Prima Donnas spit out. The true pomegranate gourmet chews them up or swallows them whole, like the seeds in raspberries. Be warned however. Accidentally bursting the kernels of the red-pulped ones while stripping them out of the fruit can spray almost indelible stains on your clothing.
Pomegranates thrive best in semi-arid locations with cold winters and hot summers. Humid conditions tend to degrade the fruit production, a tendency I find disappointing, because I’d like to grow them in East Texas. Through horticultural manipulation, there are now at least fifteen cultivated varieties of pomegranates.
Pomegranate juice can be extracted with an apple press after peeling off the skin and grinding the halved fruit. Even an orange squeezer will work for small quantities. The resulting juice is pale pink to dark red depending on the variety used, and pretty stout unless diluted a bit. Concentrated pomegranate juice is sold commercially as grenadine and is used to flavor and impart color to various drinks. A delicious, seed-free jelly is also made from the juice. The main commercial pomegranate growers are located in California and Arizona, but as I sit writing in Southern Nevada, my brother-in-law’s back yard has several large heaps of pomegranates from his bushes, where they are drying a bit before pressing.
Pomegranate juice can also be fermented to make a wine that many think is excellent. In ancient times, the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon 8:2 states:
I would lead thee, and bring thee into my mother’s house, who would
instruct me: I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate.
The shrubs were found often enough in Biblical times that in 1 Samuel 14:2 it is written:
And Saul tarried in the uttermost part of Gibeah under a pomegranate tree…
Pomegranates ornamented the temple pillars and the priest’s robes:
And he made the pillars, and two rows round about upon the one network,
to cover the chapiters that were upon the top, with pomegranates: and so did he
for the other chapiter.
1 Kings 7:18
24: And they made upon the hems of the robe pomegranates of blue, and purple,
and scarlet, and twined linen.
25: And they made bells of pure gold, and put the bells between the pomegranates upon the hem of the robe, round about between the pomegranates;
26: A bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate, round about the hem of the robe to minister in; as the Lord commanded Moses.
Exodus 39: 24-26
My favorite use of pomegranates, second only to eating their kernels by the handful, is the Thanksgiving tradition of liberally mixing the juicy little kernels into fresh fruit salad. Crunchy, tangy and sweet, they lend special magic to the salad’s flavor that can’t be equaled. Their taste always elicits in me recollections of burning autumn leaves and turkey roasting, taking me back to my youth, and filling my heart and mind with peace.
So, this fall, munch some pecans fresh from the shell or treat yourself to a piece of pecan pie. And if you’ve never eaten pomegranates, take a leap of faith and try them. You’ll forever be richer for the experience. Then, this Thanksgiving, as the hymn recommends, “Count your many blessings; Name them one by one by one. Count your many blessings; See what God hath done.”
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.