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Nuts About Pralines

Savoring childhood memories in San Saba
Written by Melissa Gaskill. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.
Martha Whitten, owner of Alamo Pecan & Coffee Company, shows off a basket of creamy pralines. (Photo by Will van Overbeek)

As a child, I looked forward to my mother’s homemade pecan pralines every Christmas. The sugary, nut-studded treats practically defined the holiday.

Years later, I lived in a house with more than a dozen pecan trees in the yard. Gathering pecans became a favorite fall ritual, followed by the tedious activity of shelling them, and—ultimately—the reward of eating them. I never quite perfected my mom’s praline recipe, though. I had discovered after her death that her written recipes—more akin to memory aids than actual instructions—lacked lots of details. Fortunately, some years later, my oldest daughter’s scout troop made pralines as a fundraiser, and much to my delight, they were almost identical to my mom’s.

Even though I now had a better recipe in hand, I soon realized I was more interested in eating pralines than making them. And so I purchased some from time to time, but I remained unfulfilled, praline-wise. Then one day, I happened to drive through San Saba on my way to parts beyond.

A sign at the city limits proclaimed San Saba to be “The Pecan Capital of the World.” It turns out that pecans, indigenous to the area, first became a cash crop in San Saba County in the 1800s. In the 1870s, amateur horticulturist Edmond E. Risien arrived here from England and, using the area’s thin-shelled pecans for seed, planted a 600-tree orchard near the confluence of the Colorado and San Saba rivers. After waiting 12 years for those trees to bear fruit, he began cross-pollinating and selecting to create such varieties as Onliwon, Squirrel’s Delight (love that name!), San Saba Improved, and Western Schley. Irrigation canals went in during 1875, and in the banner year of 1919, San Saba County produced 3.5 million pounds of the nuts, twice as much as any other state in the union that year. Normal annual production for the county now ranges between 2 and 5 million pounds. Sometime along the way, the town claimed the world title.

Surely this was the place to find the pecan praline of my dreams.

The town at least offered plenty of places to search. I started west of town on US 190, at Great San Saba River Pecan Company. An orchard of pecan trees in neat rows fronts its retail store, which offers shelled and unshelled fresh pecans, chocolate fudge, a “pecan pie in a jar,” and a delicious, gooey Pecan Turtle candy, but, alas, no pralines. The next stop, San Saba Pecan, runs primarily a processing operation and, again, I could buy fresh pecans and a few flavored ones, but no pralines. Millican Pecan Company occupies a charming 1920s house on US 90, now known as Wallace Street. Its many offerings include pecan brittle, pecan divinity, and even pecan pralines, which were sweet and delicious, but had a chewy consistency—unlike the ones in my memory, which boasted a satisfying snap when I took a bite. Back to the drawing board.

Bagley Pecans’ store, a wholesale and retail operation, was closed the day of my visit, leaving me peering through the windows like, well, a kid at a candy store. I learned later that amid the pecan coffees, nut-honey butters, and popcorn mixes, Bagley does in fact sell pralines—but they’re the chewy kind. Back on Wallace Street, Oliver Pecan Company had the widest selection of goodies so far, including a variety of flavored pecans, jams and sauces, fudge, candy, real-sugar sodas, and pralines—chewy ones. Nuts! Perhaps creamy pralines had become a thing of the past.

I had one last stop, though: Alamo Pecan & Coffee Company, also on Wallace Street, near the courthouse square. When I opened the door, the aroma of coffee and pecans greeted me. Shelves held the familiar selection of flavored and fresh pecans and jams and jellies, as well as coffee. And there, in a box by the cash register, were pralines that looked just like the ones my mother made. I peeled one open, closed my eyes, and took a bite. I saw my six-year-old self, sitting at the kitchen table without a care in the world, savoring a praline just pulled from a waxed-paper tray, still slightly hot.

I bought a dozen.

From the October 2013 issue.

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