pee-can-vs-pah-cahn

If you put two Tar Heels together, you’d better call a referee, because you’re going to need a third opinion. You see, we Tar Heels are an arguing people. We debate basketball, barbecue, even beaches.

One word, in particular, leads to prolonged debate: pecan. More specifically, how you say pecan.

As the author of Pecans, I’ve crisscrossed the state to talk about the nut. And I can tell you this: Politics is peanuts compared to pecan pronunciation.

Pee-can or pah-cahn? At every book signing, book talk, and book sale, it’s been the subject of endless debate.

As reasoning goes, I’ve heard some doozies. I’ve been told that it’s “pah-cahn” if they’re on the tree and “pee-can” if they’re on the ground. “Pee-can” if they’re free and “pah-cahn” if you pay for them. Pee-can in pralines and pah-cahn in pies.

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.

It’s urban versus rural.

I’ve met people from upstate New York who say “pee-can,” and people from Charleston, South Carolina, who say “pah-cahn.” In my book, I told the story of my own parents and their “mixed marriage”: He was from Americus, a small town in South Georgia, and she was from the mighty city of Atlanta.

All of my childhood, I couldn’t say the word without being corrected: If I said “pah-cahn,” my father would accuse me of talking snobby. And if I said “pee-can,” my mother would sniff, “Pee-can? That’s something you put under the bed.”

So here’s the real rule: If you want to sound down-home or a little bit country, say “pee-can.” If you want to sound a little more urbane, say “pah-cahn.”

And if anyone corrects you, just smile and change the subject — to basketball.

For Your Bookshelf

Kathleen Purvis knows pecans better than most. For the Savor the South book collection from UNC Press, Purvis wrote Pecans, a book filled with surprising anecdotes, recipes, and food history. Her second book, Bourbon, will be published in September 2013. Visit uncpress.unc.edu to order your copy.

Kathleen Purvis is the food editor of The Charlotte Observer.

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Purvis is the food editor for The Charlotte Observer. She is the author of two Savor the South Cookbooks: Pecans and Bourbon. Purvis has been cookbook awards chair for the James Beard Awards since 2000.