Ed Pratt: Autumn memories of picking pecans

A long time ago, I lived in a shotgun house on Howard Street within arm’s length of about a half a dozen pecan trees. It was about this time of year, when I was 6 years old, that I launched my first business — selling pecans.

Between first and fourth grades, I would bound out of bed around 6 a.m., jump into my clothes, grab my Quaker grits box and head to the trees.

Mrs. King, who lived two doors down, would pay 25 cents per full grits box. She made and sold pecan candy in the afternoon. She and her husband, an auto mechanic, were the only people on my block with any real money and a nice house.

I had the trees to myself in the cool, early mornings. In about 20 minutes or so, I would have the grits box filled and be on my way to Mrs. King. I was walking away with my quarter!

That quarter would mean a stop at the tiny convenience store on the way to school, something from the candy machine at recess, and less stress on my grandmother’s handkerchief where she kept the remains of her pension check.

On cold mornings, the pickings would be slower. My fingers wouldn’t work as well while I foraged around the trees and discarded lumber in the little field. (For one thing, there were no workplace safety standards when you picked pecans. Did you know that little snakes are sometimes under trash lumber — and that there are big spiders out there and other biting things?)

When there were not enough pecans on the ground, I would pick up a piece of board or fallen limb and throw it into the trees to knock loose some pecans. That may have been the origin of the phrase, “make it rain.” (Some of you know what I’m talking about.)

On Saturdays during pecan season, my older cousins would take me to places where the trees were more plentiful. These pecans were sold to a different vendor who paid a little better than Mrs. King.

The most common place was a cemetery not far from my house. Initially, I didn’t like the location. What if I stepped on a grave? What if the dead person didn’t like the idea of me being there?

How odd it is that the nickname of my cousin who took me to the cemetery is Tomb.

He convinced me that there was a ton of pecans at the cemetery, and that if we arrived early, we could rack up before others came. He was right. We usually hauled away a couple of big boxes of pecans in less than two hours. Tomb also told me that if I stepped on a grave or pointed at one, I had to bite my finger and bite hard or the dead people would get me. Well, I did it. I even did it a couple times when I went alone before I figured out he was messing with me.

After a while, I would troll cemeteries in old South Baton Rouge to pick pecans on the weekends. Sometimes, though, going alone to a cemetery was not a good idea if there was a group of pecan folk already there, and you were not one of them. I quickly learned that it made good business sense to turn around and go someplace else.

This pecan picking (I think I may have picked 500,000 pecans over time) went on until I was 10 and moved to another part of town. I essentially retired.

A few years ago, I was at my mother-in-law’s house, where there are a couple pecan trees in her yard. I watched as the children picked pecans and others shelled them for a pie or to give away.

I didn’t pick up one. I have not bent over to pick up a pecan in decades. Not one. However, if you are willing to give me (computed with inflation factored in) $3 for a Quaker grits box full, I just might consider it.

Ed Pratt is a former Advocate editor. He is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is epratt1972@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter: @epratt1972.