Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Going Nuts

I have recently added to the image of being SuperMom in my child's eyes by employing the skill of cracking pecans without the aid of an actual nut cracker.

It has become a regular part of my day to share a snack of fresh pecans with Charles. Somewhere around 2 o'clock, he asks for "one more" while grabbing the Sun-maid Raisins box that I keep a stash of about 20 pecans in at any given time. (he says this because each time we share a few I end it by saying "Okay, only one more.") The pecans came from my mom's office building- there is a tree there which rains the sweet nuts in their tough little shells onto the parking lot (and, unfortunately, some of the cars if they park too close). A man she works with got permission from the owners of the tree to collect as many nuts as he wanted. So he took a little tool called a Nut Wizard (see picture below) and rolled it all over the grounds, picking up literally thousands of pecans.
He offered my mom a 10 lb bag. For Free. Now, if you've never seen a 10 lb bag of unshelled pecans, let me give you an idea. It's about 2 feet high and a foot wide and weighs (yes, of course,) 10 lbs but if you've ever tried to lift and/or carry said bag of southern goodness, it feels heavier by the minute! One other little point about this bag of pecans before I move on with my story about Charles: you may recall that I did mention the words FOR FREE just a few sentences ago. The next time you are at your local grocery store, meander on over to the baking or produce aisles and take a gander at the price tag on just a 1 lb bag of pecan halves. Better than that, I'll do it for you... my Google browser says that right now at Kroger in Douglasville (cause it also depends on where you live as to whether you can get them, right, Jennifer??) a 1 lb bag of pecan halves is $8.99!!! These things are expensive! All of that to say that we are extremely grateful for this 10 lb bag of pecans!
Anyway, Charles grabs the box and I sit down with a trashcan in front of me to collect the shell pieces.
Charles is thrilled with this particular cracker that we have- it's been my grandmother's for years and years. I played with it when I was little. It's a black dog; something like a St. Bernard of some sort, of cast iron. The tail lifts up to open the mouth, which cracks the nut when the tail is lowered again. I've seen them online anywhere from $10 on e-bay to $350 at antiques sites. He looks like this:
While I was getting the trashcan, Charles had trotted downstairs and fetched it from the hearth, but I told him we didn't really need it. He said "Why not?", looking at me as though I'd completely lost my mind. We have nuts, therefore we must need the nutcracker to get them open. Aren't you paying attention, Mama? His expression was so cute! I proceeded to show him a trick that I learned from my grandfather when I was Jeremy's age. I took 2 pecans in my right hand and squeezed. The pressure of the pecan with the harder of the 2 shells cracks the one with the weaker shell. Then with my thumb and nails, I peel the bits of shell off to get to the sweet nutmeat inside. The cast iron nutcracker is easier, but makes a bigger mess when the shell pieces go everywhere. The hand cracking method can make the flat part of your thumb sore as you press against the shells to peel them from the nutmeat, but it was interesting to see the awe and wonder on his face that mama is "Super Strong" enough to crack pecans with my bare hands! I thought the same thing of my grandfather, because at 8 years old, I wasn't strong or coordinated enough to do the trick. My hands were only big enough to hold one pecan in my fist at that age. While I was shelling the pecans I did see Charles get one pecan out of the box and squeeze it with all of his might, trying to copy me and crack it open! He stands patiently at my knee and gets the lion's share of the nuts. As soon as I have one cracked open and the bitter parts of the inside removed, Charles holds out his pudgy hand and I drop the nutmeat into it and he quickly pops it into his mouth. I get probably one pecan half for his every 5 whole pecans, but I don't mind because he can't crack them for himself and I can continue cracking them for my own portion after he has lost interest and gone to play with his toys.
For the sake of curiosity, I got this information on the pecan from the Food and Fiber Systems Literacy Curriculum at Oklahoma State University's Agricultural Education Department:

Before recorded history, pecan trees grew wild along the river banks of what is now southern Illinois. Flood waters moved their seeds across western Missouri into southeastern Kansas, Oklahoma, central Texas and Mexico. Accounts by early Spanish and French explorers show that Native American tribes living in these areas moved around to follow the pecan harvest. The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was held captive by one of these tribes from 1529 until he escaped in 1535. In his journals he wrote that the people lived on nothing but pecans for two months of every year. During the rest of the year they pounded pecan kernels, added them to boiling water and used the mixture as seasoning for other foods.
The pecan is a form of hickory. The word “pecan” comes from the Algonquin word “paccan,” which means “a tough nut to crack.” Some of the pecans harvested today are small native pecans whose shells are very tough to crack. Most are new varieties called “papershell” varieties.
The life of pecan trees can be 100 years or more. A pecan tree will start producing nuts in its first six to eight years. There are two parts to the pecan nut. The nut has a soft outer husk. A hard, brown shell forms within this husk. The pecan meat is within the shell. It is soft and clings to the inside of the shell until the fall of the year, when it starts to congeal and
separate from the shell. Ripened pecans are easier to separate from the shell than those that are not. When the nuts are mature, the husks split open into four pieces, and the nut falls out.
The price pecan growers receive for their product depends on the percentage of edible meats in a sample. The grower weighs out one pound of pecans and carefully cracks them by hand or in a mechanical cracker. He or she picks out the edible meats, weighs them and calculates what percentage they are of the total weight of pecans. In the best pecans the
edible meats make up 50 percent or more of the total weight. Some of the newer developed varieties of pecans have edible meats weighting up to 60 percent of the total weight. Those meats deemed inedible are those that are poorly developed, rotten, or moldy or those that have dark spots. The dark spots indicate insect damage.
After the grower has picked out the edible meats, he or she separates them into three piles according to their color and development. The best pecans (No. 1’s) are bright colored, full bodied and solid. The next best (No. 2’s) are bright colored but light-weight. The least best, or No. 3 meats, are brown-colored and either full-bodied or lightweight.
The use of pecans has reached outer space. NASA packs pecans for astronauts to eat because they are dry, compact, contain important nutrients and are easy to digest. Pecans are low in sodium and have no cholesterol. They are also high in energy and contain protein, vitamin A, phosphorous, potassium and magnesium. The oil in pecans is mostly unsaturated (95 percent). Unsaturated fat is the good source of fat people need because it helps lower blood cholesterol.
Most of the pecans grown in the United States are grown in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida. Outside of the United States pecans are grown only in a few countries where the climate and soil conditions are proper. These countries include Australia, Canada, India, Israel and Mexico.

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