Chowan County keeps cracking pecans for holiday tradition
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Chowan County keeps cracking pecans for holiday tradition

Jan 23, 2024


From an old cinder- block building behind a farmhouse in Chowan County, the rhythmic sounds of pecan crackers echo across the yard.

Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk repeats about every second as one nut at a time rides to a steel rod that snaps against the end of the shell.

It is the sound of the holidays for Tim and Glenda White and their customers.

"They bring them in boxes, tubs, buckets, bags and flower pots," White said. "It's like bananas: They come in bunches."

From a few weeks before Thanksgiving to a bit after Christmas, people from nearby and miles away bring pecans for White to crack. It's the season of pies, breads and cookies made with the tasty nut. On a good day, he will run 1,000 pounds through the three machines.

White, 73, has been here for 20 years. He took over for his father, who started the small operation in 1977.

The process is as simple as his country life. White lives in the house where he grew up. He takes his grandsons hunting for wild turkeys in the woods nearby. He gathers lean tree limbs and makes walking canes from them. Several hang in his shop. A row of wooden trucks he made lines a high shelf.

He mostly devotes the winter months to pecans.

Each machine takes a different size of nut – small, medium and large.

They crank out a large paper bag's worth – weighing about 20 pounds – in less time than it takes to snap a handful of nuts by hand and pick out the meat. While the customers wait, they chat with White as if they’re sitting on a front porch.

He keeps an oil can and a few tools handy, but the machines have operated with little maintenance for nearly 40 years.

He charges 30 cents a pound for cracking. The customer only has to separate pieces of shell from the nut.

"It's well worth it," said Michael Powell of Elizabeth City. "This saves all kinds of time."

Lou Ann Winslow has been coming here from nearby Belvidere for nearly 20 years. She bakes pies, breads and her specialty apple cake with pecans, a family tradition .

Pecan consumption has gone up since the Chinese acquired a taste for them in large quantities about eight years ago, said Michael Parker, a professor at N.C. State University who specializes in fruit and nut trees. The Chinese love the taste and nutritional value, he said.

"Pecans are a superior nut," he said. "It is a healthy nut."

North Carolina ranks in the top 10 pecan-producing states, along with leaders Georgia, New Mexico and Texas. The 2014 pecan crop in the United States totaled 264.2 million pounds worth $517 million, a 12 percent increase over 2013, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center based at Iowa State University.

Much of the North Carolina crop comes from private farms with pecan trees.

"Just about all the old farms have two or three pecan trees," said Gary Burbage, owner of Pamlico Pecans. "Been that way for a couple hundred years."

The old-time favorite in eastern North Carolina is the Stuart pecan, but dozens of new varieties are disease resistant and also full of flavor.

Part of the pecan's appeal goes back to tradition, Burbage said.

"It's just not Thanksgiving or Christmas without pecans," he said.

White and his wife retired years ago from running a small grocery and garage not far from their Tyner home . He wakes early, goes out to the shop, turns on the machines and starts cracking.

"I hope to keep on doing it," he said. "I hate to stop, you know. It's a service for those people."

Jeff Hampton, 252-338-0159, [email protected]

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