What’s more American than apple pie? Pecan pie. The world’s first apple tree grew in Asia millennia ago. But the pecan tree is a native American. How appropriate, then, that pecans enjoy a place of honor on the table at Thanksgiving, a deeply homegrown holiday.
But hold the whipped cream. Pecan pie is expensive this year! Where I live in Austin, Texas, pecan pies are clearing $20 each at bakeries around town. In coastal cities like New York and San Francisco, where labor and overhead are higher, a 9-inch pie can set a pilgrim back as much as $34. Even at these prices, bakeries are selling pecan pies at a loss. Why so costly?
The cost of pecans is fully exposed to the economic push and pull of supply and demand—the government doesn’t support pecan prices the way it does sugar prices, for instance. So when the most populous country in the world suddenly developed an insatiable and totally unprecedented hunger for pecans, demand skyrocketed. The price of pecans did, too.
James McWilliams (an occasional Slate contributor) tells the story in his new book, The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut. The year was 2006, and the scene was a food trade show in Paris. An official from New Mexico’s Department of Agriculture introduced a group of Chinese buyers to pecans, an important crop for that state. “The Chinese cracked them open, sampled them, and were intrigued—so intrigued,” writes McWilliams, “that they traveled to New Mexico to meet growers, tour orchards, and discuss tentative contracts.” At the time, China didn’t import any pecans, and it didn’t (still doesn’t) grow any, either. No one in China ate pecans.
And yet, after only a couple of years and a bit of savvy marketing, a craze for pecans had gripped the Chinese like quinoa in California. Advertisements touted their antioxidants, claiming them capable of extending life and fending off Alzheimer’s. China’s exploding middle class has disposable income and considers the pecan a snack worth splurging on. The Chinese now eat pecans like we eat pistachios—partially shelled and brined, then roasted for extra salty-crunchy goodness.
By 2009 China had gone from not having a word for “pecan” to importing 83 million pounds—a quarter of the U.S. crop. With a public willing to pay between $10 and $15 a pound, importers began actively courting pecan growers in other states, like Georgia and Texas. “In 2005,” writes McWilliams, “pecans were a novelty item in China. Today they can be found, as one newspaper reports, ‘at gas stations, airports, and every grocery store in China.’”
What does that mean for American pecan growers? Jake Montz planted his first pecan trees in 1987 and now grows some 25,000 trees’ worth on his farm in Wichita Falls, Texas. These days about 25 percent of his crop goes to China. He sells another quarter in his own two nut shops, and the remainder goes to a shelling company that will, in turn, sell the nutmeats to grocery stores and companies that manufacture ice cream and breakfast cereals.
Conditions this year have squeezed his supply even more than usual. Severe drought in Texas has stretched on for three years now, and the pecan trees have suffered. Making matters worse, three late freezes decimated this year’s crop. But he still has to pay his ever-rising costs—fuel, electricity, equipment, labor. Fortunately, high demand both domestically and from China means prices are high. “I’d rather have a big crop and sell them a little cheaper,” says Montz. Unfortunately, that’s not happening this year.
Professional bakers would love for pecans to be a little cheaper, too. In the mid-1990s, my local bakery, Texas French Bread, sold pecan pies for $10 to $12 each ($15 to $18 in today’s dollars). Today, owner Murph Willcott pays more than $11 a pound for the fancy pecan halves that go into pies he can afford to sell only at Thanksgiving. Chopped nuts, usually sold as “pieces,” would be cheaper, but the pies wouldn’t look as nice. “The halves are prettier,” he says, “so we try to use them.” Willcott also values the freshest nuts. Though some bakers use nuts that are a year or two old, he says, “What you want is the one that’s just been shelled, that is really beautiful and perfect. Those are really hard to find at this point.” As a pecan ages, with or without its shell, it loses moisture and thus plumpness. An old pecan just isn’t as pretty as a fresh pecan, and pretty matters—especially when people are paying more than $20 for a pie.
Willcott’s pecan pies will sell for $22 this year, but that won’t cover the cost of making them. “So we’ll eat it on that one,” he says, “and our margin won’t be what we want it to be. But we’ll make them anyway.” Another Austin bakery, Walton’s Fancy and Staple, has addressed pecans’ soaring cost by pricing all its Thanksgiving pies at $22. This way, the lower cost of producing pies made with ingredients that happen to be cheaper—pumpkin, for instance—helps offset the more expensive pecan. But even using this strategy, Walton’s has had to raise prices over the past several years, says culinary director Justin Raiford.
What does the pecan boom mean for people who bake their own pies? In 2008 pecans retailed for $3.50 a pound, according to McWilliams. In 2010 they were up to $6.95. Now, at my local grocery store, I pay $10.99 for pecan halves and $9.99 for pieces. My pecan pie recipe calls for three-quarters of a cup of each.
That means pecans are now the most expensive item when I prorate the prices on my ingredient list. Butter comes next (we use organic), then the corn syrup (don’t judge me before you taste my pie), and maple syrup (Vermont’s a long way away). When I add it all up, I find it will cost me $11.73 to make a pecan pie from scratch. Of course, we’ll have to double that at Thanksgiving. One pecan pie is never enough.