Pumpkin pie may reign supreme on Thanksgiving, but the true hero of the dessert table is pecan pie. Unlike its gourd-based friend that falls out of favor after the holiday season, pecan pie remains a popular dessert year-round.
The American-born dessert’s origins date back to the late 19th century, and the recipe has remained largely unchanged since its creation. Here’s a look into the origins of pecan pie and how it’s climbed to a position of prominence on Thanksgiving tables across the country.
Where did pecan pie originate?
Pecan pie is an American creation. Pecans are native to North America; the nuts were propagated by Native Americans as far north as Illinois and the southern part of Iowa, according to Edgar Rose, a former engineer and self-made pecan pie expert who lives in Illinois.
Pecans grew along areas watered by the Mississippi River, spreading a bit to the east into Alabama. Following the Civil War, commercial developers brought in a few varieties of pecans to grow in Georgia (the state is now the main commercial grower of pecans in the U.S.). Grafted pecan trees also became prevalent in Louisiana in the mid to late 1800s. The name of the nut itself is derived from the French word pacane, which is taken from the Algonquian word for “nut.” That may help explain why some believe the French invented the pecan pie after settling in New Orleans, though there’s seemingly little evidence to support that.
“Once people had pecans, they started using them for baking,” Rose says. The earliest printed pecan recipes began popping up in Texas cookbooks in 1870s and 1880s; the first recipe that most closely resembles what we know today as pecan pie was published in 1898 in a church charity cookbook in St. Louis, but it was sent in by a Texas woman.
By the beginning of the 20th century, recipes for pecan pie had started appearing outside of Texas, but the pie wouldn’t surge in popularity until the mid-1920s. That’s when the manufacturer of Karo syrup began printing a recipe for pecan pie on cans of the product, as James McWilliams noted in The Pecan: A History of America's Native Nut. Wide distribution of Karo syrup introduced many people to pecan pie, who found it was quite simple to make.
“That is why, to this day, most of the recipes for pecan pie still use Karo syrup,” Rose explains.
What are the typical ingredients in a pecan pie?
Technically classified as a “sugar pie,” the classic pecan pie recipe promulgated by the makers of Karo syrup uses a cup of the product in the mixture, along with eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla extract, and of course, pecans. Alternatives for Karo syrup include brown sugar and molasses, and some recipes add bourbon, rum, or whiskey into the mix. Pecan pie is nearly always baked in a traditional pie crust verses a crumble crust or a cookie crust.
Are there regional variations on the pie?
As with any classic dish, near-countless variations have emerged. Popular additions to the traditional pecan pie include bourbon, whiskey, shredded coconut, and chocolate. There are also pecan pie-cheesecake hybrids, pecan hand pies, and, strangely enough, pseudo-healthy versions involving chia seeds. Molasses or brown sugar sometimes serve as a substitute for the corn syrup, an ingredient that’s gotten a bad rap from nutrition advocates in recent years.
Since the recipe for pecan pie is so simple, there are really no stark regional divides when it comes to method or ingredients. Sweetness, however, is a different story: Rose generally finds folks from south of the Mason-Dixon Line prefer their pies on the sweeter side, relaying an old Southern baker’s credo that a pie should be “sweet enough so that the fillings in your teeth hurt.”
What makes it gooey?
The dense combination of butter, sugar, corn syrup, and eggs create the gooey interior of pecan pie, which complements the crispiness of the top layer. While baking, the pecans rise to the top, leaving a gooey layer of sugary custard below. .
How have recipes for pecan pie evolved over the years?
Early 20th century recipes for pecan pie occasionally contained items such as milk and raisins, but once the Karo syrup recipe spread across the country, the ingredients changed little (barring personal tweaks and individual preferences). The majority of pecan pie recipes published today are still based on the traditional Karo syrup recipe.
How did it become a Thanksgiving staple?
With the advent of corn syrup and a pecan surplus, the popularity of the pies spread across the country. Pecan harvesting begins in late September and extends into November, making the timing just right to fuel pecan pie baking for the holiday.
How do you really pronounce pecan?
Pronunciation surveys have yielded as many as four variants on the pronunciation of pecan: pee-KAHN, pick-KAHN, PEE-can, and PEE-kahn. Rose has his own thoughts though, taken from an experience at a restaurant in Georgia, where a waitress informed him: “Over here, we don’t call it ‘pee-can’ pie. To us, a pecan is something that long distance truckers use when they don’t want to make many stops. We call it ‘pick-kahn’.”