Southern Pecan Pie: A Personal History

By Paul Thomas Zenki

This recipe is easier than it used to be …

When I was a little boy, a pecan pie was a helluva lot of work. Especially for the kids.

I was born on the Florida panhandle in what used to be a fishing village, but grew up in a Georgia mill town. Our house stood at the crumbling dead end of a street built into what was once a pecan orchard. Looking down the yards, those muscular old trees ranged in perfect rows, standing at sufficient distance that their outstretched canopies just met at the branch tips. Beneath their shade, homeowners had planted dogwoods and azaleas.

In the fall when the nuts were ripe, we boys would climb up to shake the pecans loose. On the ground, the grownups used oval-shaped springs nailed to the ends of sticks to pluck them from the grass and dump them into buckets.

Then came the real work. Hours at the nut-cracker, breaking open the hulls and fishing out the sweet bits nestled like tiny brains inside wooden skulls. Some we would save uncracked to take down to the relatives in Florida and they would give us oranges and grapefruit to bring back home. The rest went into pecan pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

These days you don’t have to work so hard for it. I will share with you my mother’s recipe, as well as my grandmother’s which is a little simpler. I’ve made them both and love them both, although they have a slightly different flavor and texture.

I have included the recipe for the pastry shell, although I never could get the hang of it, so I resort to store-bought. (But that’s just between you and me and Jesus, you understand.)

My grandmother’s recipe (verbatim)

  • 1 cp pecan halves
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cp sugar
  • 1 cp dark corn syrup
  • 2 tbl butter, melted
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/8 tsp salt

Place pecan halves in a pattern in bottom of unbaked pastry shell. Beat eggs slightly; mix in corn syrup, sugar, butter, vanilla & salt. Gently pour into unbaked shell.

Bake at 400° for 15 mins; lower temperature to 350° and cook an additional 30 to 35 mins. (filling should be slightly less set in the center than around edge). Yields one 9 in pie.

My mother’s recipe

  • 1/2 C. butter
  • 1 C. sugar
  • 3 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 3/4 C Karo syrup
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 C. chopped pecans

Cream the butter, add sugar gradually till light & fluffy. Add remaining ingredients except nuts. Mix well. Pour into pie shell. Put nuts on top. Bake on lower shelf @ 350° for 40–45 mins.

Pastry crust

  • 1 C. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/3 C. Crisco
  • 3 Tbsp. ice water

Mix flour and salt. Cut in shortening. Add ice water. Roll into ball and roll out with rolling pin.

My grandmother’s recipe doesn’t require a mixing machine, and makes a denser, sweeter pie. My mother’s recipe is a bit lighter but richer. Maybe try them both, one for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas, and see which you prefer.

And hey, I’d love to hear back how they came out for you.


Header image: Photo by St0rmz, background by Michael Schwarzenberger

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.