How do you pronounce pecan? Is it PEE-can or pah-CAHN?
Kathleen Purvis has heard all the pronunciations. And they don't bother her a bit. It's not the word but the flavor that has made the nut a favorite of hers. She tells the story of the pecan -- and her love of it -- in a charming new book by the University of North Carolina Press. "Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook" ($18) is part of a new single-subject series that pays homage to the regional foods of the South. Hers is a joyful -- and very tasty -- tribute to the ubiquitous Southern nut. (Think pecan pie, pecan pralines, pecan tassies, sweet potatoes with pecans -- the pecan is to the South what walleye is to Minnesotans. Well, maybe not walleye pralines, but you get the drift.)
"It's the No. 1 question I get at book signings," she said with a laugh. "'How do you pronounce pecan?' I hear it within 10 to 15 seconds. People think it's a regional difference, but it's really not at all. It's urban versus rural."
Purvis grew up in a household where pecans were ever-present, if not in the baked goods then in a dressing or cheese ball or served up as a snack. As a Georgia native (the state is the leader in growing pecans) and longtime food editor at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, she grew into her authority on the subject one taste at a time long before she honed her sights on the history of the nut.
American Indians used wild pecans for sustenance. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planted the trees. Early efforts in propagating pecans didn't take off commercially until after the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 when a tree on display won a prize (in today's terms, that would be like winning "Top Chef"). The Centennial pecan tree went on to become the basis for big-time production.
If there's one pecan recipe to master, what would it be? "Pecan pie. It always makes people happy," Purvis said in an interview. She offers four versions in her book: classic, crispy, cream and chocolate-maple. The crispy version uses cornmeal in the filling, an old Southern method, which adds a contrast -- and nice buffer -- to the intensely sweet flavor of the traditional pecan pie.
Which brings us to baking. "Pecans are so much a part of Christmas baking that I get in a good mood just being around them, even when I was testing recipes in the summer," Purvis said. "They just make you feel like Christmas."
Pecan tips for cooks
• Toast pecans on top of the stove instead of the oven because they burn easily. Do so in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they become fragrant. If there's a burnt one in the bunch, discard it.
• If you plan to use a lot of pecans, buy them in the shell (they are significantly cheaper). Once shelled, though, they should be stored in the freezer in heavy-duty resealable bags; they will last up to a year. Shelled pecans quickly get rancid at room temperature. If you have a lot of pecans to shell, Purvis recommends the Reed's Rocket, a simple nut cracker available in hardware stores or online.
• Go beyond desserts in your use of pecans, says Purvis. They are also great in salads, side dishes and main dishes.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @stribtaste.