As we drove down the long, dusty road, I noticed a few fields of Alabama cotton that had yet to be cleared. Autumn was evident in the harvested crops, the cool, crisp air, and the golden and amber hued leaves that tumbled and weaved across our path like children playing without a care in the world. We slowly crept to a halt as we got to the end of the road and inched over a set of railroad tracks. As we passed over the tracks, it was as if we went back in time. A time when Southern traditions were worn like a strand of cherished pearls: donned daily around the neck and treasured close to the heart.
Mighty magnolias and precious pecan trees covered the grounds of the family estate. Branches bowed as if they were graciously welcoming our arrival. Pecan trees were freckled with bright green jackets, which harbored tiger-striped pecans, just waiting to drop to the ground. I gathered as many pecans that had already fallen before the squirrels could get their greedy paws on these scrumptious Southern treats.
As I gathered pecans, I heard a loud yelp in the distance. “What was that?” My question was countered with laughter. “Oh, that’s just Jerry Lee Lewis. He loves to sing!” I looked around the corner and saw two larger than large German Shepherds. Recalling Jerry Lee Lewis’s nickname was “The Killer”, I retreated back to my basket, gathered my spoils and graciously allowed the dogs to feast on the remaining pickings.
With my basket filled to the brim with pecans, I made my way into the inviting, old house. The worn, wooden floors whispered and creaked as if they could tell tales of the children that grew up in these corridors. Those children have grown and now have their own children scurrying about the house, writing new chapters into the history and halls of the estate.
As I walked into the main parlor, I noticed framed newspaper clippings along with black and white photos of beautiful hunting dogs. The owner of the house pointed to one photo in particular and said, “He is the one that started it all.” According to the legend, this was the first of many show dogs that raised enough money to pay for the estate. (It is also referred to as the house the dogs built!) I made my way through the French doors and down the hallway, and into the main living room where I found my favorite spot in the house.
In front of an enormous fireplace stood two matching chairs angled toward each other with a tall, circular table nestled in between. On top of the wooden table rested a crystal bottle filled with blushing brandy and two digestif glasses carefully placed in front. That one sitting area told an unspoken story of two people taking time at the end of the evening, relaxing in front of the crackling fire, enjoying something to drink that warmed their bodies and their spirits. This simple setting taught me something about the past. The past does not have to only live in photos on the wall or in worn floorboards, but it can also be kept alive in small, tangible details daily.
I watched the magnolias fade into the distance as we passed over the tracks once again. I sat there with my basket filled with pecans and thought about traditions and the means to restore and cherish them in our everyday lives. Here is to restoring old traditions and creating new ones that will live on in our spirits and homes for generations and generations to come.
Recipe: Pecan + Fig Southern Nougat
Note: This classic European dessert is traditionally made with pistachios or almonds, but I combined local Tennessee honey, Alabama pecans and Louisiana figs for a lovely Southern twist!
90g of Sourwood Honey (or any other local honey)
90g of light corn syrup
300g of granulated sugar
2 tablespoons of water
2 egg whites, room temperature
Pinch of kosher salt
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
100g of toasted pecan halves, roughly chopped
100g of dried figs, quartered
Cornstarch and powdered sugar, for dusting
Line an 8 ½ x 4 ½” pan with greased parchment paper.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine honey, corn syrup, sugar and water until the mixture reaches 284oF (140oC), soft crack stage.
Meanwhile, whisk egg whites and salt in a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until soft peaks form.
Add the golden syrup to the egg white while slowly whisking. Increase the speed and whisk for 6-8 minutes. Whisk in the vanilla extract for 30 seconds. Fold in pecans and figs.
Quickly pour the nougat into the prepared pan and spread evenly with a wet offset spatula until smooth. Allow the nougat to sit for 4-6 hours.
Dust a cutting board with equal amounts of cornstarch and powdered sugar. Turn the nougat onto the cutting board. Remove the parchment and dust with more cornstarch and powdered sugar. Cut into desired pieces and tightly wrap in wax paper for up to 2 weeks. Enjoy!