My family and I were in Big Level, Mississippi, to spend the holidays with my husband Patrick's relatives, and that always meant one thing: pecan time! Shortly after we arrived, my brother-in-law Jamie pointed to a table completely covered in shelled nuts. "Well, do you think we have enough?" he joked.
With help from his wife, Bethany, and their three kids, he had scooped up 90 pounds of pecans from beneath the huge tree at Uncle Kendell and Aunt Betty's place next door. Then they'd taken them to get "cracked and blown," which meant most of the shell had been removed, but the nuts still needed a final cleaning to take out any lingering pieces and those bitter, corky parts.
Over the course of our visit, we made memories around that table—gathering to tell stories, laugh, and sip bourbon, all while painstakingly picking through (and nibbling on) pecans. The little kids would sit in our laps and join in every now and then, filling their cheeks like chipmunks.
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I've always loved local pecans. When I was growing up in small Mississippi towns, a wooden bowl of mixed shell-on nuts usually topped our coffee table in the winter. Sometimes there would just be pecans—I knew they were a gift from a kind friend or neighbor with a prolific tree.
Later, when Patrick and I lived near downtown Birmingham about 12 years ago, we had a pecan tree in our yard that proved fruitful around every other year. We'd sometimes notice people stopping on the sidewalk to gather nuts, and it made us happy to see others appreciate their worth too. These pecans might be longer and skinnier than the grocery store ones, but those idiosyncrasies speak to terroir, to being a natural, untouched product of your locale. And cracking them is part of what makes them special—like opening a present someone gives you, as opposed to buying one for yourself.