A Texas Tradition? A Brief History of the Pecan Pie

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There are many reasons to love the fall. For me, it’s always been the pie. My grandmother makes what I believe to be the best pecan pie in the world, and it never quite feels like the holidays without a slice of that pie. I know I’m not alone: pecan pie is the official dessert of the state of Texas (a big thank you goes out to State Rep. Marsha Farney for that one). So, to celebrate the fact that pecan pie season is finally upon us, let’s dig in to the history of this great Texan tradition.

Pecan pie was mentioned in publications dating as far back as 1886, though not all of them sound like the dessert Texans (and other lucky people) enjoy today. That year, Harper’s Bazaar printed this recipe for the pecan pie:

    [Pecan pie] is not only delicious, but is capable of being made a ‘real state pie,’ as an enthusiastic admirer said. The pecans must be very carefully hulled, and the meat thoroughly freed from any bark or husk. When ready, throw the nuts into boiling milk, and let them boil while you are preparing a rich custard. Have your pie plates lined with a good pastry, and when the custard is ready, strain the milk from the nuts and add them to the custard. A meringue may be added, if liked, but very careful baking is necessary.

In 1898, a “Ms. B” sent a recipe for “Texas Pecan Pie” to The Ladies’ Home Journal that follows a similar pattern: a custard with pecans folded in and poured into a pastry shell. Forty years later, in 1938, The Southern Cook Book of Fine Old Recipes lists a pie that sounds much closer to the one I consider to be the real deal: no flour or cream is added to the mixture, and the filling is poured into a raw shell and baked all at once.

Karo syrup is pretty central to my family’s pecan pie recipe, so it came as no surprise to me that one legend surrounding the pie’s history is that a wife of someone at the company made up pecan pie when she found out what a great base Karo syrup made for a nut-based pie in the 1930’s. The company serves up their recipe (with far too little butter, in my opinion) as the “Classic Pecan Pie” to this day.

Though I must admit that I was disappointed to discover that pecan pie didn’t spring forth from the kitchen of an early pioneer woman way back in the history of the Lone Star State, and surprised to find that this beloved dish could be less than a century old in its current incarnation, it didn’t dampen my love for our state pie one bit.

And now, without further ado, from my family to yours:

Simply Superb Pecan Pie
(A Cato family tradition)

Ingredients:
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick butter, melted and cooled
3 eggs
1 cup corn syrup (half light, half dark)
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup pecan pieces
1 tsp lemon juice
1 dash salt

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Beat the eggs, and then combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Mix well, and pour into an unbaked pie shell. Bake the pie for 45 minutes to an hour, or until a knife inserted comes out clean. At 45 minutes, check your crust. You can use foil to cover of the edges of the pie so they won’t get too brown.

This pie is best enjoyed… any way you can get it. Cold, hot, with or without ice cream, this is the best dessert in the Lone Star State – and I stand by that statement. As my granny would say, good cookin!

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About Author

Genevieve Cato

Genevieve Cato is a feminist activist and a native Texan. While not writing for the Burnt Orange Report, she can be found working for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, serving as a community member of the Communications Committee for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, and drinking copious amounts of pretentious local craft beers.

3 Comments

  1. Hear hear!! As a 7th generation Texas I passionately concur! Pecan pie is THE Texas holiday dessert in my opinion. It looks as if the Cato’s pecan pie recipe and my great grandmother’s recipe came from the same source. Keep up the good work and pass the fork.

  2. Good article. However, James A. Michener in his book “TEXAS” has the first pecan pies were made from local nuts gathered on the east bank of the Brazos near Waco by the ferryman’s (Germans) wife who fed travelers while waiting on the ferry. Michener had a helluva historical research crew (whom he sent in as much as 2 years earlier) to get as much authentic local history as possible before writing his books. Also, the Nueces River (northern boundary of South Texas and The Valley) … nueces (meaning ‘nuts’), referring to pecan nuts that were apparently indigenous to the locale.

    Also, My ancestors (southern Grayson County, TX) have been pieing (: with pecans for a very long time. And you don’t need the vanilla nor the salt (use salted butter; it mostly is salted already) … use dark brown sugar (if you can find it, or light(? if not) and dark corn syrup … and otherwise the receipt is the same.

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