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A&E >  Food

Pronunciation matters: Opening a ‘PEE-can’ of worms

By Steven Petrow Special to the Washington Post

A few weeks after the elections, in a much-needed gesture of goodwill, I apologized to millions of Americans for having mispronounced “pecan.”

No, it wasn’t easy to eat a piece of my own humble pie. Both blunder and apology came during guest spots on the National Public Radio show “All Things Considered.” A year ago, in response to the innocuous question “What’s your favorite holiday pie?” I had answered pecan, despite the fact it has nearly twice as many calories as pumpkin or sweet potato.

I emphatically pronounced it “puh-KAHN.”

No sooner had I uttered the word than friends, farmers and pie makers where I live in North Carolina started haranguing me. The correct pronunciation, they insisted, was “PEE-can.” To be honest, I always thought a “PEE-can” is what you put under a bed, but I bowed to the arm-twisting. Still, you would have thought I’d just said “I am joining the NRA” on NPR.

Fortunately, I did get credit from fellow Tar Heels for noting that pecan pie is not just for Thanksgiving, as most Yankees believe. Alex Willson, a fourth-generation pecan farmer, agreed. He explained on the phone from Sunnyland Farms in Albany, Ga., that “pecan pie is a great dessert at any Southern table, all fall – including Hanukkah and Christmas.” Hanukkah? That was news to this Jew.

But back to my apology. Once it was given, I found I still needed to find the phonetic truth about how to pronounce “pecan.” To do so I queried 200 real-life friends, 30,000-plus online followers and a handful of experts. What exactly determines our pronunciation of “pecan”? Race? Gender? Religion? Geography? One thing I quickly learned is that the answer is as sticky as the Karo syrup used in my pie recipe.

Many think how we pronounce the nut in question is determined by the Mason-Dixon Line. Not so fast. A poll conducted by the National Pecan Shellers Association asked Americans how they say it: A whopping 45 percent of Southerners say “PEE-can,” while nearly 70 percent of those living in the Northeast do, too. That’s heresy to many in the South, including my Hillsborough neighbor and Georgia native Frances Mayes (author of “Under the Tuscan Sun”), who insists on “puh-KAHN.”

My own “investigation” corroborated the pecan pickers’ poll. Jimmy Holcomb, who grew up in eastern North Carolina, defiantly says “PEE-can,” while the Mississippi-born wife of a colleague says “puh-KAHN … and if you say PEE-can, watch out.” Kathleen Purvis, author of the 2012 cookbook “Pecans,” wrote in a North Carolina magazine: “Conventional wisdom holds that the difference is regional, one more thing separated by the Mason-Dixon Line. Sorry, but that’s just not so. I’ve listened to people from all over. And in my experience, this pronunciation isn’t North versus South.”

OK, then what is it? Josh Katz, author of “Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk,” has studied dialects far and wide, including – no surprise – the pronunciation of “pecan.” His book and a corresponding map actually detail four ways to say it, since the emphasis can be on one syllable or the other, though for the life of me I’ve never heard anybody say “pee-CAN.” Katz says the “urban-rural” fault line “is a big part of a lot of dialect variation, in particular pronunciation.” With that distinction in mind, urban dwellers in North Carolina are more likely to say “PEE-can,” while country folk generally say “pih-KAHN” (his take on “puh-KAHN”). Purvis agrees, “It’s urban versus rural.”

Now we’re onto something, I thought. That is, until I bumped into Sandra Davidson, a podcast host from Buies Creek, N.C. (that’s rural!), who said with no apparent irony, “It’s PEE-can pie but praline puh-KAHN ice cream.” “How can that be?” I replied, forcing her into retreat – for the moment – saying she was going to ask her mother. Another friend made another crazy distinction: “I live in Massachusetts, and I say puh-KAHN pie. Sounds snooty. But referring to the nuts, I say, PEE-cans.” In other words, it takes PEE-cans to make puh-KAHN pie. This is nuts! I said to her. “I agree,” she answered.

Exhausted and getting hungry for some pie, I decided it was time to use my “phone-a-friend” lifeline and called William Ferris, one of the country’s greatest folklorists and an expert on all things Southern. (His official title: senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.) Ferris grew up on a farm outside Vicksburg, Miss., and shocked me – and no doubt some of my well-schooled friends – when he claimed that how you pronounce pecan is connected to “class and education.” I’ll skip his aural distinction because, as my educated friend Amy Barr told me, she’d be angry “if I fell on the ‘dumb’ end of the spectrum.”

Before giving up on finding the right answer, I had two more phone calls to make: that is, to North Carolina’s top elected officials. Governor-elect Roy Cooper told me (through his press aide) that he definitely says “PEE-can.” The state’s top Republican, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, says “puh-KAHN.” Well, that says it all, doesn’t it? It’s not about Karo vs. maple syrup, bourbon or chocolate as the secret ingredient in pie. No, the pecan wars are political: Blue State versus Red State!

By the end of my quest, I’d discovered two things to be true: No matter how you say it or slice it, any pecan pie tastes better with a shot of Gentleman Jack. Second, we should just eat our pie and not talk about it.

Petrow writes the Civilities column for the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @stevenpetrow.

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