Pecan pie postscript, with China, greedy squirrels and feral pigs in Texas (huh?)

Dear Friends: Thank you for all the nice comments on my previous post about my mother’s pecan pies. I feel compelled to follow up today, as there is so much interesting pecan-pie-related news, some of it on the front page of the New York Times (“No Holiday Pecan Pie? Thank China, Feral Pigs and Ill-Timed Rain”). But to go back, I need to clarify that the hammer in Mom’s hand was for cracking pecans, an obvious oversight by clueless me, but recognized immediately by cook Michael. Mom probably brought the nuts with her from New Mexico, a state that produces pecans, but I think she learned to make pecan pies in Texas, my father’s home territory, and where we briefly lived when I was a child.

mom with hammerAnd this brings me to that moment of regret we all feel with the loss of loved ones: If only I could ask Mom to tell me the story of how she learned to make pecan pies! Was it from our southern grandmother, Jessie, whom she never much liked for her stern character and chewing tobacco habit, with spittoon close by? (This was Texas, remember). I will never know, but this reminds me why I love StoryCorps and their tag: “100 years from now, what will it mean to have recorded and preserved the voices and experiences of everyday people?” This year StoryCorps celebrated ten years of traveling the country in an Airstream trailer, “listening to America,” recording stories in their mobile sound studio and teaching how to do oral histories. On their website, you can invite them to come to your community. ( story corps photo 2

Related to that, I heard on NPR that today, November 29, is the National Day of Listening, a day to honor a loved one through listening. I liked that idea, so I asked Michael if I could interview him. He’s always harkening back to the good old days as we walk around Portland, pointing out sights and places, saying how wonderful everything used to be, and how it’s all gone to hell now. “No way am I going to be remembering on demand,” he grumbled as he worked on making gnocchi with a new recipe (bake the potatoes first). Oh well, so much for that idea. ( gnochhi

OK, so what’s the connection with pecans and feral pigs and China that has driven pecan prices up over 30% this year?  Record rainfall last spring and summer in Georgia and South Carolina, summer drought in Texas and Oklahoma, a disease called scab, heavy fall rains in Texas and a sporadic harvest. And then those darn Texas feral pigs moved in to take advantage of the situation, along with freeloading squirrels. “Wildlife pressure,” was how a spokesperson for the Texas Pecan Growers Association delicately put it.

And now China: most of the high quality pecans go for export, and China is the biggest customer. Called “bi gen,” which sounds similar to “pecan,” they are sold in bagfuls in street stalls and grocery stores, and are especially popular around Chinese New Year, which falls in January this year.

mom would have been proudBottom line: Pecan prices are way up, and pecan pie popularity is seriously down. Google reports twice as many searches for pumpkin pie as for pecan pie this year. But in the south, home of my father’s kinfolk, pecan pie is still king. My sister Sher, visiting in Florida, felt the pull and sent this photo of her pie, with the message “Mom would have been proud.”

Enough about pies! If you are wondering about my holiday effort to produce a pumpkin-ginger cheesecake for Thanksgiving, I can tell you it was a mixed success, from a social/marital point of view. Michael does easily share his kitchen, at least with me, and he was busy preparing his own contribution to Thanksgiving, an appetizer he called “French tacos.” I just wanted to be left alone, in quiet, with my recipe (which I completely misplaced and had to print out again from Glutonforlife website). Yet I needed to ask him if we had a hand mixer (no), small measuring cups (no), a can opener (yes), and if the oven temp was accurate after my cheesecake was far from done after the prescribed hour (yes, but it still went 1.5 hours, caramelizing the crust). I forgot to read the instructions about how to mix the ingredients, and ended up with everything in the blender, in stages. A big mess. I was surly, Michael was annoyed, but by the time we left for our friends’ house, a truce was declared. Thanksgiving dinner with Bruce and Nancy and their family was a big success.  Oh, and the cheesecake was delicious, (but so rich we had to take a long walk today to burn off some calories).






Pies, memories and mothers

I woke up this morning thinking about my late beloved mother, Adelene, who was a wonderful maker of pies. I had such a clear memory of her, standing at our kitchen table in Portland one Thanksgiving a few years ago, Michael’s blue workman’s apron tied around her waist, rolling pin in hand, her hand-written recipe for pecan pie at her side. When I went looking for the photo, however, I see that my memory had altered and added a few elements: it was Christmas, not Thanksgiving; the apron was tan, not blue; and in her hand – for some strange reason – is a hammer, not a rolling pin (I suspect Michael was nearby, goofing around). But that is definitely her pie-making paraphernalia in front of her.

mom with hammerAfter my sisters and I were long grown, and Mom was a widow, she loved to travel. Whenever she visited us during the holidays – daughters and grandsons in Portland, San Francisco, Mexico, Miami, or Austin; sisters in Los Angeles and San Francisco – she came with her pie-making gear in her bag: pastry cloth, a pastry sleeve for the rolling pin, and an old pastry blender she’s had for many years, used to cut the lard into the flour for the crust. We loved her pies and demanded that she make them for any holiday. Pecan, mincemeat and pumpkin were her specialties.

rolling pin sleevepastry blender      pecan pie

Her crusts were great. Her secret? Crisco. The recipe? Classic Americana, with Karo syrup:

mom with crust 2mom, crisco cropped

Our father was a fabulous and a natural cook, as are my son and my husband. (I do not have this particular gene, but I do seem to be a carrier of it, as well as attracted to those with it.) My mother, however, was a nervous cook. A child of the depression, she was always worried there wouldn’t be enough for seconds. She had a few standard dinners, which she cooked very well, but she didn’t find happiness in planning, shopping, and creating meals. Like a lot of women from her generation, however, baking gave her great pleasure. Perhaps because there was less pressure. Perhaps because dessert was a luxury, not a necessity.

That was probably the last time Mom made pies in Portland, but she spent several other holidays in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with my sisters and their families. Here she is her last Christmas, at 91 years, still looking great, making pies with Char.

Mom instructs Char

This is not our first Thanksgiving without Mom. Last year was. But we had just lost her three months before, at 92, and the grief was too fresh to even think about pies, much less that we will never have another one of her’s. (Although I hear a recent rumor that my nephew Alex might carry on the tradition.)

So this year I am going to make a sort-of pie. Not one of Mom’s, of course, but a pumpkin/ginger cheesecake with graham cracker crust from Laura Chavez Silverman’s great blog:

Well, darn! This entry is short because I must go shopping now for the ingredients. I’d much prefer to stay at home and write, or work in the garden, or clean the house or fridge, or do anything else. When it comes to cooking, I guess I am my mother’s daughter.

In any case, have a Happy Thanksgiving and a Happy Hanukkah.






Cañari Women’s Education Foundation

November, 2013.  Every year at this time I send out a fundraising letter for our Cañari Women’s Education Foundation, a 501(c3) non-profit program supporting university education for indigenous Cañari women. Some of you will receive the letter via postal mail; some through my e-mail list, and others will learn about it through this blog – so please excuse the duplication of efforts. If you would like to contribute, contact me for further information: (Or reply to this blog.) Your donations are tax deductible.

present studentsDear Friends:

It’s that time of year again! Thanks to all of you, the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation continues to thrive, with twelve graduates working in professional careers, seven full-time students, one master’s student, and many plans for the future. In the above photo you’ll meet our present scholarship women, at various stages of their university courses: (from left to right) Juana (veterinary medicine), Luisa (medicine), Maria Esthela (nursing), Nelva (social communication), Mariana (public health/nutrition), Mercedes (laboratory clinician), Transito (nursing), and Mercedes (accounting). Pakarina, not pictured, started in September in architecture.

All the women study full time at state institutions: the University of Cuenca, or the Technical University in Riobamba. The Foundation provides a monthly stipend of $110-$120 to help cover fees, room and board, travel and other expenses. (President Correa’s government eliminated tuition in state schools in 2012, making our dollars go further.) Undergraduate degree programs usually last five years, and the women must live away from home while studying, most in rented rooms with a shared kitchen.

Our program also provides $500 to each woman for thesis and graduation costs, as the universities try to squeeze every penny from students as they get closer to finishing. This means our support for each woman averages about $1500 yearly, an amazingly low cost for a university education in any country.

It’s always gratifying to check in on our past graduates, so I’ll give you a few updates.

CarmenCarmen Loja, with a degree in economics from University of Cuenca, is now director of her hometown branch of the oldest savings and loan cooperative in Cañar. She heard about the job on the radio, sent in her resume, and was interviewed by members of the coop, competing with several others. She won the position “on her merits,” the executive director told me (significant in a country where indigenous applicants are almost always at a disadvantage when competing for jobs with non-indigenous). Certainly the fact that Carmen is a native Quichua speaker gave her an advantage (all our scholarship women are bilingual Quichua/ Spanish). Before I left in July, she proudly told me that she has brought 400 new members into her branch.

pacha 2Pacha Pichisaca now runs her own dental practice in Cañar, and here she is attending to a woman from her village. I was amused on the day I took this photo. After tentatively knocking and asking if it was okay if I photographed her and her patient, Pacha said, “Yes, yes, come in!” Her patient sat up and grinned at me, and the patient’s husband, sitting nearby, recognized me and asked if I would come photograph their five-day San Antonio fiesta next year. So unlike a visit to the hallowed dentist’s office in the U.S.!


This is the eighth year of our program in Cañar, and many of our graduates are the first indigenous women in their fields. Last January, some of them gathered to throw a welcome-back lunch for me. Pictured above are (l-r): Pacha (dentist), Obdulia (educational psychologist in hometown high school); Mercedes (first Cañari woman lawyer); Alexandra (agronomist and teacher, bilingual school); Mariana (literacy teacher); Veronica (bank customer service representative); Maria Chimbo (certified public accountant); and Margarita (eco-tourism in rural communities).

kids in patio

Meanwhile, the next generation is coming up fast. Here, the sons and daughters of some of our graduates amuse themselves on our patio during our lunch. The women and I had a good laugh, remembering the early days of meetings trying to talk over the cacophony of crying babies; then, chaotic gatherings with laughing or screaming toddlers running around. Now, those babies are sedate little primary school students. One excellent ripple effect of our program is that our scholarship women tend to marry fellow students, have smaller families, and are committed to providing their children with educational opportunities unknown to them.

Veronica Paucar

An innovation this last year: the Foundation voted to support our graduates gain master’s degrees. We offer up to three scholarships a year in the order of graduation. Verónica Paucar (r) is working on an MBA at the University of Azuay in Cuenca, and Alexandra Solano and Mercedes Guaman have applied to programs in Quito. All are low-residency courses, lasting two or three years and requiring the women to travel to Cuenca or Quito once a month for weekend classes. As in the U.S., our graduates find they need more than a B.S. or B.A. degree to get ahead in their careers. The master’s courses are very expensive and wouldn’t be possible without our help. The Foundation provides $1500 the first year, and $2000 the second.

A huge thanks to all who have supported the scholarship program over the years. Every woman knows that it is you – friends, neighbors, family, contributors, champions – who make their educations possible, and each one feels a personal connection of gratitude. They welcome you to visit Cañar to meet them, and I to visit Michael and me in our “house in the clouds” – any year between January and July.

We are proud that the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation is an official 501 (c) 3 nonprofit, which means your contributions are tax deductible. We have no administrative costs other than the postal mailing, so every dollar goes to the women’s education. You will receive a warm thank-you letter with your IRS receipt.

Judy Blankenship, President, Cañari Women’s Education Foundation