By Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
I’d heard about Little Eva Pecan Company, but had never driven up to Cloutierville to check it out. Since this is the time of year I pull out dog-eared holiday recipes and stock up on pecans, I thought that now was the time to make that trip to central Louisiana.
Julie and Mark Swanson own this tranquil, 362-acre orchard, which is perched on a peninsula surrounded by the Cane River. Julie explains that their business is a family-run corporation. “We operate our warehouse and trees under the name Natchitoches Pecans. But the business is more identifiable as Little Eva.” Little Eva is the name of their retail store, a quaint wooden cabin flush with just-picked pecans, Louisiana-themed gifts, and enough types of pecan candy to satisfy any sweet tooth.
Little Eva is part of a former 11,000-acre plantation known as Hidden Hill, which in its heyday was North America’s largest pecan orchard. The name “Little Eva” comes from the believable legend that Hidden Hill Plantation was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the 1950s, in honor of the girl who befriended Uncle Tom in the book, the then-owners renamed the plantation “Little Eva.”
Another celebrity associated with Little Eva is the folk artist Clementine Hunter, who was born at Hidden Hill in 1886. Hunter’s valuable original paintings hang in top-end museums. But you can buy Clementine Hunter-inspired gifts at the Swansons’ Little Eva Gift Store.
None of Hidden Hill’s major original structures still exist. But on their part of the former plantation’s acreage, Julie and Mark lovingly grow many varieties of grafted pecan trees. Julie easily rattled off some of the names of their towering pecans. “Sumner, Caddo, Melrose, Lakota, and Oconee,” she said. “Lots of them are named for Native American tribes.” They also have the variety Candy, known for its use in desserts, the buttery-tasting Elliot, and the variety called Desirable, which produces a large, semi paper-shell popular for using in anything.
With help from family members, Mark manages Little Eva’s vast alleys of trees and oversees everything from planting to shelling. He especially enjoys nurturing his trees, which he plants in symmetrical, square-patterned rows 50’x50’ apart.
Although he has a few new varieties that produce earlier and earlier, he says that typical trees take 6 to 10 years to mature. Pecans, which are technically drupes, are members of the hickory genus and the walnut family. Trees can grow over 100 feet tall and can live well over 100 years.
Crows and squirrels love pecans. Mark’s biggest varmint threats come from pests such as aphids, mites, and the aphid-like insect known as phylloxera. He especially keeps an eye open for signs of the case bearer moth.
“Scab,” he says, “is my hardest challenge. “It’s a fungal infection. If I don’t keep up with it, it can knock out the whole crop.” It’s no wonder that he constantly tries out new tree varieties that provide resistance.
Another source of tree damage comes from the weather. The Swansons have faced tornado destruction, and they still feel the sting from Hurricane Rita. They were especially hurt by Hurricane Laura, which tore through with 100 mph winds, and in 2020 cost them nearly 60 percent of their typical annual yield of 125,000 pounds in-shell.
Fortunately, this year’s crop looks much healthier. As is typical, different pecan varieties are ripening at different times. It’s time to harvest when the trees’ numerous green husks (shucks) turn brown and crack open in four parts, revealing their seeds, pecans. Harvest begins in mid-October and ends in late December.
The harvesting process begins with a large machine that grabs tree trunks and shakes them free of pecans. The pecans are scooped up by a mechanized harvester and loaded into wagons.
Mark cracks and packages Little Eva’s pecans on-site. He cleans unshelled nuts in a chlorine solution. Grading involves loading them on a conveyor belt that sorts by the use of a computerized “electric eye.” Dried and graded nuts are stored in “super bags” that hold up to 2,000 pounds.
Little Eva has several mechanized pecan crackers and shellers. “One of my machines can crack up to 1,000 pecans a minute,” Mark says. “After they’re shelled, about 80 percent come out in perfect halves.” The final step before packaging is grading by hand.
Most empty pecan shells end up as mulch in Julie’s expansive mounds of flower beds. When she’s not gardening, Julie takes care of Little Eva’s retail end of the business. She sells directly from the Swansons’ farm, either by mail order (www.natchitochespecans.com) or from their store. She also hand-packages whole, cracked, and shelled pecans, as well as a large variety of candies made especially for Little Eva. And she makes artful gift packages.
“It’s a lot of work,” she says. “But I enjoy it. And I couldn’t do it without help from family.”
Since pecans turn rancid fairly fast, Julie recommends refrigerating or freezing them promptly. In-shell or shelled pecans can be stored in air-tight containers and refrigerated for 9 months, or frozen at 0°F up to 2 years.
The U.S. produces 80 percent of the world’s pecans. The state of Georgia is our most prolific grower. Louisiana, with some 13,000 bearing acres, consistently ranks in the top 5. Our state harvests over 17 million pounds annually, which contributes about $12 million to our economy.
The modern commercial pecan business is possible because of a long-ago discovery made by a slave named Antoine. The industry was established after 1846, when a slave at Oak Alley sugar plantation in southeast Louisiana successfully grafted a variety of pecan that could be easily cracked. Antoine’s “paper shell” pecan won a prize at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where his pecan picked up its name, the Centennial Variety.
In addition to the numerous grafted varieties the Swansons grow, they also have a stand of native pecan trees. Pecans are indigenous to south central North America. The name comes from the Algonquin word “pakan,” which means “a nut that takes a stone to crack.” When the French arrived in Louisiana, they pronounced it “puh-CON.” That’s the way most of America says the word, at least according to the American Pecan Council. It’s the English, especially those who settled on the east coast, who decided to say “PEA-can,” a word that to some Louisianians invokes images of an outhouse.
No matter how you say it, we love this native nut. After my visit to Little Eva, I came home with an assortment of irresistible candies and a large bag of Desirable pecan halves. I’ve been assigned to bake a few desserts for our family’s Thanksgiving meal. Without a doubt, at least one, or maybe two will contain pecans.
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Makes 24. Adapted from a recipe by the Little Eva Pecan Co.
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup (½ stick) salted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups pecans
1. Lay a long sheet of parchment paper on a hard work surface. In a 3-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine sugars and cream. Stir while bringing to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat to medium and simmer, without stirring, until mixture reaches the soft-ball stage, or 238°F.
2. Remove pan from heat and stir in butter and vanilla. Keep stirring, and when mixture starts to get creamy and slightly thick, stir in pecans.
3. Use a tablespoon to quickly drop candies onto parchment paper. Allow to cool until firm. Store in an airtight container up to 2 weeks.
Bourbon and Chocolate Pecan Pie
Makes a 9-inch pie (Best made a day ahead)
The bourbon is optional, but the alcohol evaporates as the pie bakes and leaves a delicious flavor.
1 (9-inch) refrigerated pie dough, or homemade, unbaked
3 large eggs
1 cup light corn syrup
⅔ cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons bourbon or water
2 tablespoons salted butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips
½ cup finely chopped pecans, plus 1 cup pecan halves
¾ cup chocolate chips
1. Place a rack in the center of your oven and preheat oven to 375°F. Place defrosted or homemade pie dough in a 9-inch pie pan. Trim it and refrigerate while making filling.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, corn syrup, brown sugar, bourbon, melted butter, and vanilla. Stir in the chopped pecans. Scatter the chocolate chips on the bottom of the pie filling and gently pour filling over the chocolate. Bake 20 minutes.
3. Remove pie from the oven and carefully arrange pecan halves decoratively on top. Return to oven and bake until puffy, yet has a slightly wobbly center, about 30-40 more minutes.
4. Remove from oven and cool completely, preferably overnight. Serve at room temperature.
Pecan Pie Bars
These little goodies taste just like traditional pecan pie, but they’re easier to serve.
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups firmly packed light brown sugar, divided
1½ sticks cold salted butter, plus 5 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup dark corn syrup
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ cups chopped pecans
1. Preheat your oven to 350°F. Butter the insides of a 9x13-inch baking pan. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour and ½ cup brown sugar. Use your fingers or a pastry blender to cut in 1½ sticks cold butter until the mixture resembles coarse corn meal. Press mixture firmly into the bottom of the buttered pan and bake until light brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and prepare the filling.
2. In a large bowl, mix together well the remaining 1 cup brown sugar, 5 tablespoons melted butter, corn syrup, and eggs. Stir in pecans. Pour filling evenly over the prepared crust and bake until firm, 35-40 minutes.
3. Cool completely, then cut into bars. Store in an airtight container up to 2 days.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.