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A down-South debate for the ages: How do you pronounce pecan?

A bowl of roasted and salted pecans is heavenly food on the Mississippi Coast and in most Southern states.
A bowl of roasted and salted pecans is heavenly food on the Mississippi Coast and in most Southern states. Special to the Sun Herald

Pecan is a tough nut to crack.

I don’t mean literally, as in cracking the hard outer shell to get to the delicious meat.

I mean figuratively, as in how to properly say the word p-e-c-a-n when there are at least four different pronunciations in the United States.

Repeat after me. Pecan. Say puh-CON. Or maybe pic-KHAN.

But please, not PEA-can or PEE-khan. That kind of talk doesn’t belong on the Mississippi Coast.

Of course, our native way of pronouncing the word is the correct one. Why wouldn’t it be, given that easier-to-crack paper-shell pecan varieties were cultivated here, starting in the late 1800s.

I say POE-tate-oh; You say pah-TOT-toe.

I say puh-CON; You say PEA-can.

Every word nerd, be they self-proclaimed or learned, has a list of pet word peeves. In fact I bow to those who might argue I’ve used “figuratively” incorrectly here, which may well be true.

But it gets my point across, and that’s the important role of communication. I tend not to get fussed over mispronunciations and misuse of words — unless they are something I really, really care about. Like pecan.

Yes, I know today is Mother’s Day and this missive should be about our moms. But just yesterday, while shopping in Charlottesville, I cringingly overheard someone ask the clerk for PEA-cans. (Maybe she will make her sainted mother PRAY-leans, which Gulf Coast folks would call PRAWL-leans.)

Like Mississippi, Virginia is a culturally Southern state, so I expect better of the locals. OK, maybe she wasn’t a native Southerner, so I told myself that I must forgive and silently move on.

I got in the car and the NPR radio voice immediately tells me that earlier presidents have started lasting traditions, with one of them being the pardon of the White House turkeys on Thanksgiving. NPR played a 2008 voice clip from former president George W. Bush:

“In keeping with a long standing tradition, Pumpkin and Pecan are hereby granted a full and unconditional presidential pardon.” Guess how the president pronounced pecan? Yup, the right way. Bush is from Texas, a top-three pecan-producing state.

This run-in with the “P” word made me wonder how another president, Thomas Jefferson, pronounced the name of the pecan trees he planted at Monticello, just outside Charlottesville.

Not surprisingly, Mississippi is one of the top 10 states, producing two to four million pounds annually. In my experience folks who pronounce the word with a strong “PEA” are from regions not blessed with many pecan orchards.

Pecans are native to Mississippi and other regions within the USDA hardiness zones of 5 to 9. The pecan grows best where summers are long, hot and humid. Sound familiar? Jackson County was a leader in commercial pecan improvements in shell and taste, but the bad hurricanes of 1947 and 1969 killed a number of orchards that had survived 20th Century Coast urbanization and development.

The only good thing to report from such losses is that after each bad storm, we have wonderful wood chips for grilling and smoking outdoors. Usefulness also comes from discarded shells used for mulch, turned into bio-fuel for stoves and turned into a wood substitute when ground and mixed with resin.

This tasty nut was known to Native Americans and the Colonials, but it didn’t become a commercial U.S. crop until the 1880s. Today, it is a popular export but pecan orchard growers admit trouble meeting the overseas demand for this native American nut.

I wonder how they pronounce the word in other countries? If they consult Americans the answer will depend on the region, but I suspect most of us cling stubbornly to the pronunciations we grow up with, no matter where we might move.

This polarized debate will remain a draw, so “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” as suggests the Gershwin tune aptly dueted by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong as well as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Let’s just pronounce pecans DEE-lish-US!

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.

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