Before the modern era of corporate farming and super supermarket shopping, most south Louisianans grew a lot of what they consumed. What our families could not produce was either bought from overflowing produce trucks that crawled the neighborhood streets or from the small family owned grocery where, my wife for example, would ride a mechanical horse for five cents outside while inside her mother bought slices of luncheon meat and bologna.
Fruit trees and vegetables, chickens coops and fertile eggs were commonly cultivated on generous lots of land. My grandparents had a few yard turkeys as well which we children, of course, named. Occasionally one would go missing and the fate of said ‘pet’, like Rubberneck or Crooked Toe, remained a mystery for quite some time. We never questioned the origin of the beautifully roasted centerpiece at the holiday table. That our turkeys were aloof should come as no surprise.
A bonus of rural life in Louisiana’s Mississippi delta was the abundance of trees and shrubs on public land that bore fruit. Native pecans and wild blackberries were instant lottery winners. Harvesting was simply a matter of foraging. A well aimed stick was thrown at a cluster of pecans in a tree and it rained nuts. We would eat some, bag some for sale and bring the rest home. During the holiday season when pecans were in great demand I would often scour the woods after school scouting unclaimed crops.
My grandparents were royalty in our kitchen kingdom. My grandmother used pecans in pies, cakes, breads and cookies. My grandfather had a second job as a candy maker and used the nuts in brittle, pralines and fudge. They held the keys to a child’s sweet tooth. If they needed pecans, I delivered. I wasn’t the first-born male in my family but I could be the Cajun ‘Dauphin’ if I brought home a sack of native pecans.
Long ago my dentist filled my sweet tooth but I haven’t lost my love of pecans. Lately I’ve become more creative using them as a savory component. At Christmastime I roast the nuts with clarified butter and sea salt and give them as presents. I also use them as hors d’oeuvres or in salads. They are an excellent substitute for pine nuts in a local take on pesto. But desserts are still king and I love it in the following Pecan and Sweet Potato Bread Pudding Recipe with the pecan’s close friend, the sweet potato. In hindsight I think I was the pioneer in the tree to table movement. Merry Christmas!
Pecan and Sweet Potato Bread Pudding
½ cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons cane syrup
1 tablespoon molasses
2 cup heavy cream
2 cup milk
3 tablespoons melted, unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 cups cooked mashed sweet potatoes
1 cup pecans pieces (roasted or raw)
8 cups one or two-day old French bread or brioche cut into cubes
1. Pierce two sweet potatoes with a fork and bake at 400 for 40 mins until soft.
Then peel and mash.
3. Combine eggs, sugar, syrup, molasses, cream and milk and whisk thoroughly.
Stir in the sweet potatoes, vanilla and spice. Add the pecans, bread and butter
then mix gently and thoroughly.
4. Pour into greased baking dish and let rest for 30 minutes at room temperature
to allow mixture to soak into bread.
5. Bake for one hour at 350 degrees or until just firm and set. Serve warm or cool.