On this day when we commemorate arguably the finest civil rights leaders the United States has ever produced, we at Language and Table contemplate just how to pronounce one of his favorite foods.

Dr. Martin Luther King was reportedly a big fan of pecan pie, a heart stopping southern traditional concoction of corn syrup, butter, sugar, and a thin veneer of pecannuts just to serve as an excuse, a nod, really, to legitimate nutrition. Pecan pie is so fantastically rich that it’s a wonder anyone over 30 can recall eating it, since that the first bite taken as a youngster should probably have been enough.
But to the controversy: It’s not just a puh-TAY-toh/puh-TAH-toh brand of disagreement we’re dealing with here. There are, according to, no fewer than four legitimate ways of pronouncing this nut: pee-KAHN, pick-AHN, PEE-can, and PEE-kahn. Two different pronunciations are common with our mother tongue (CAR-mel/CARE-uh-mel), to be sure. So are two different words to represent the same thing (soda/pop), but pecan takes home the prize on this one.
The mystery deepens when you look at map that breaks down who says what and where: The parts of the country that, by and large, don’t grow pecans, seem to have rallied around pee-KAHN, but the southern swath of the country that might actually come across a pecan tree on a neighborhood walk is all over the map. And lest you need yet another reason to make fun of the Northern Minnesota accent, the map shows that they have adopted a pronunciation that they share only with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, one of the most isolated spots in the lower 48.
So unfortunately we’re not going to solve this conundrum in a fleeting blog post. But on a day when we commemorate a famous preacher/spiritual leader, here’s a quick moral for everyone out there surfing the intertubes: Pecan pie, like most insanely rich foods, is great in small doses, but before you die (possibly from one of the ailments inflicted by too much sugar) find yourself a pecan grove and take a stroll through it on a gorgeous spring afternoon. Reach down and pick up a few pecans – you’ll find the shells pretty easy to crack, even with bare hands. The nuts themselves are at that point still somewhat hydrated, and the fat will rub off your hands, tasting fresher than you thought possible.
Sure, winter is coming, you think, but this is Georgia, so that means nothing at all. Then return to wherever you’re staying, eat a meal that specializes in fried foods, and I’ll bet you’ll have such a good time that you’ll stop caring just how the hell pecan is pronounced.

pecan pronunciation map

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