When it comes to South Carolina's favorite pie, the nuts have it. Pecan pie is a strong tradition on holiday tables across the state, sharing star status with showstoppers like pumpkin and sweet potato. Once the seasonal festivities are over, however, it's sticky, buttery pecan pie that continues to hit our South Carolina sweet spot year ‘round.
Technically, the seed of the pecan tree is called a drupe - a husk that encapsulates a single pit. Around here, we keep things simple and call them "nuts." Far more controversial is the pronunciation of "pecan." But no matter which syllable you stress, the emphasis is always on good eating when you snack on pecans or use them to create iconic dishes like pecan pie.
Pecan pie's South Carolina roots aren't as deep as they seem. Pecan groves weren't a part of our landscape until the 1800s, having slowly moved from the north down to East Texas over to Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia before finding agricultural favor in the Palmetto State.
"One of the earliest experimental growers was John Horlbeck of Boone Hall Plantation north of Charleston, who secured cuttings sometime in the 1860s of wild pecans from Louisiana," notes Dr. David Shields, a food historian and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. " ... Horlbeck knew from personal experience that pecans could thrive in the Lowcountry, so in 1892 he began planting extensive groves."
After many tweaks, the groves grew to 15,000 trees, making it the world's largest pecan growing operation. As is the way of things, illness, death and other side effects of time's unstoppable grind spelled the demise of Horlbeck's amazing enterprise. When he died in 1916, pecan pie as we know it wasn't a thing yet, though there were plenty of early forerunners.
Birth of a Pie
Despite being a world leader in pecan production, South Carolina can't lay claim to pecan pie birthrights.
"Pecan pie began in Texas, invented in the 1880s," according to Shields. "It was first mentioned in print on February 6, 1886 in the Austin paper, ‘Texas Siftings.' And from the first is was framed as ‘a real state pie,' that is, a dish intended to be a signature of a place's ingredients and skills. The pecans were boiled in milk and added to a custard pie."
It wasn't until the 1930s that the recipe most of us use today - no milk and HEAVY on the sugar - came down to us, not by way of a rustic plantation farm kitchen, but from the label of a 1920s Karo Syrup can. It was a marketing success. The thick, cloying goo is still a key ingredient in almost all pecan pie recipes, the essential component that, when mixed with egg and sugar, gives the dessert its signature glutinous texture.
South Carolina Pecan Pie
The rich mosaic of flavors and textures belie the recipe's simplicity: corn syrup, sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla, a pinch of salt and a whole lot of pecans. A flaky homemade crust, while optional, certainly adds to the delicious overall effect. But it's those sweet, meaty South Carolina-grown pecans that make this pie our own.
Though easy to put together, especially if you use a ready-made crust, South Carolina has a trove of eateries, bakeries and other outlets where you can gobble up a slice or purchase a whole pie to take home. In November, you'll find plenty of pecan pies offered up at restaurants as well as the SC Pecan Music and Food Festival, celebrated the first Saturday in November in Florence. While some bakers add fancy touches, such as spirits or chocolate, others deliver their pie straight-up. It's perfectly acceptable protocol, however, to pair your pecan pie with a healthy dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Now that your sweet tooth is on high alert, here are a few places where you can indulge your pecan pie passion. Call ahead to check availability or to order whole pies where offered:
The Cottage, Bluffton: A homey cafe oozing Southern charm and catering to lovers of traditional pecan pie.
Kaminsky's, Charleston and Columbia: A dessert cafe famous for its Bourbon Pecan Pie.
Julia Belle's, Florence: An unassuming meat-and-three that surprises with its rich White Russian Pecan Pie.
Young Plantations, Florence: An online pecan retailer with a gift shop presence in the Pee Dee churning out perfect pecan pies seasonally.
Blue Dog Cafe, Frogmore: A quaint eatery inside a country store where you can delight in Sweet Potato Pecan Pie, a tantalizing mash-up of two Southern favorites.
Strossner's, Greenville: A bustling cafe and bake shop offering Southern pecan pies you can order online.
Kudzu Bakery, Pawleys Island and Mt. Pleasant: Family-owned bakery producing monster Southern pecan pies, each brimming with a half-pound of pecans.
Carolina Cider Company, Yemassee: Enjoy the country store charm, then take some home with you in the form of a chunky pecan pie.
If the baking bug bites, try the recipe below, courtesy of Young Plantations:
Young Plantations Basic Pecan Pie
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup pecans, chopped
9-inch unbaked pastry shell
30 to 50 pecan halves
Cream butter and sugar together. Add remaining ingredients except pecan halves. Pour into unbaked 9-inch pastry shell. Top with pecan halves. Bake 10 minutes at 375 degrees and 30 to 35 minutes at 325 degrees. Let cool before serving.