Pecans are for pies and pralines, and, for the more healthy minded, inclusion in salads or entrées.
But there’s more to the nut produced by Texas’ official state tree than food value. At least there used to be. Early-day Texas kids, not having a very wide variety of what used to be called “store bought” toys, found ways to play with pecans before eating them. ill Ellis, born in 1919, grew up in Brownwood in the 1920s and ’30s. As he recalled in his 2006 self-published memoir, “Rubber Guns: ‘Bout a Little Texas Boy in a Texas ’20s Town,” Brown County “is big pecan country.” In fact, he wrote, for years the U.S. Department of Agriculture operated a pecan experiment station there. And in his youth just about every yard had a pecan tree or two.
When pecans began to come down from the branches in the fall, Ellis and his friends had a couple of games they played with them. The kids called the first game “Crackers.”
As Ellis wrote: “By trial and error I selected the hardest shell pecan that I could find, (usually a big native) and marked it with my name. I then approached a buddy with the challenge “Crackers.” He would give me his hard shell pecan, and I would put the two side by side in my hands, and press them together.”
Whichever pecan broke under the pressure belonged to the loser, he said.
Naturally, some kids tried to “game” the game and resorted to sneaky means to develop a tougher pecan. Ellis said some players soaked their biggest hardshell in oil to make it even tougher, though he wrote that he doubted that really worked.
Other kids got more elaborate in their cheating, drilling a small hole in the pecan, burning out the meat of the nut with a hot wire and then filling the cavity with hot lead. Ellis said boys with lead-filled “Crackers” would never let the opposing player hold his, a sure tell that someone was a cheater.
But this heavy metal scam, the loaded dice of “Crackers,” seems a bit fanciful since molten lead would have to be at least 621.43 degrees. Of course, if the pecan cavity had water in it the scheme might work, but like the warning goes, best not to try this at home. Besides, it’s now known that lead is unhealthful.
The second game Ellis remembered playing with pecans was called “Hully-Gully.”
To let him tell it:
“I would put from…three to eight pecans in my hands, shake them near the ear of a buddy’s, and say, ‘hully-gully.’ He would guess the number of pecans. He had to then give me pecans equal to the number that his guess had missed, and then he got to ‘hully-gully.’ If he guessed right, he got all my pecans…”
Hully-gully is also a game kids used to play with marbles. Pecans are a logical and free substitute for store-bought marbles.
An experienced “hully-gully” player could employ several strategies to win. A saavy competitor might bend a couple of his fingers around some of the pecans he held so they couldn’t make any noise when the shaking occurred. Or a player could shake very hard or hardly at all. Finally, a less-than-scrupulously-honest “hully-gully” guy could stuff so many pecans in his hands that they couldn’t rattle.
Not mentioned in Ellis’ book is that pecans also used to be transformed into doll heads. All it took was a little paint to turn a pecan into a face that could be attached to a cotton-stuffed cloth body. Once an easy-to-make girl’s toy, pecan dolls today are considered collectible folk art.
Over the years, industrious Texans doubtless have come up with other imaginative uses for pecans, but their highest and best purpose is their food value, especially when candied with baked yams for a Thanksgiving side dish.