Nuts for Cheese
A hankering for some fresh Wisconsin cheese was the impetus behind a classified ad published 10 years ago in the Wisconsin State Farmer that blossomed into a long distance friendship.
While perusing the classified ads in the Trading Post section in 2007, Pat Saenger's husband chuckled aloud as he read about a Texas farmer willing to trade 10 lbs. of shelled pecans for 10 lbs. of good Wisconsin cheese.
"I waited about two weeks to answer," said Pat Saenger. "I figured someone probably had answered the ad already, but I like pecans and thought it might be kind of neat to reply."
It turns out that Saenger was the first one to reply to Wallace Hand's ad. The 83-year-old Elm Mott, Texas farmer was eager to send the Greenleaf, Wisconsin farm wife not only 10 pounds of shelled pecans but his prize-winning recipe for pecan pie and pecan pralines.
"I felt like I got the better end of the deal," said Saenger with a laugh. "The pecans were large and he shelled them himself."
Hand's daughter, Patty Hand Pirko says her father loved pecans and literally shelled over 1000 pounds each year using a antique cast iron nutcracker manufactured by the Perfection Nut Cracker Co., in Waco, TX, just 8 miles north of Elm Mott.
Pirko says that as a child, her father would visit a native pecan orchard owned by his great uncle along the Brazoz River, gathering pecans. And in later years he would take his own children.
"We used to take tow sacks and pick up pecans every fall," she said. "They were hard-shelled and small, but oh so tasty!"
Despite planting three pecan trees on his farm, Wallace was never able to reap much of a crop, thanks to the thievery of squirrels and blackbirds.
"One year when the pecans were almost ripe, he and my youngest sat in the back of his pickup truck keeping vigil and scaring off birds and squirrels that happened to draw near," Pirko recalled. "On the last day of the vigil, they came back to the house for lunch. When they returned, dad swore that every blackbird in McLennan County was sitting in his trees and there wasn't a pecan left!"
Calling a truce on his war with wildlife, Wallace began buying pecans in bulk to shell during the winter months.
"He refused to take them to a professional cracker saying they destroyed so much of the meat. So every year he cracked, shelled and picked every pecan by hand," Pirko said. "The year he passed away he had purchased 1200 lbs."
Pirko said her father loved cheese as much as he loved pecans.
"One day he asked me to get on that box (my computer) and talk to farmers in Wisconsin about getting some cheese," Pirko said. "I placed an ad in the Wisconsin State Farmer, Peg answered and a friendship was born. My dad was delighted and they continued to that friendship until he passed away."
Saenger said that, through Facebook, she and Pirko — who she affectionately refers to as Pecan Patty — were able to stay in touch even after Wallace's death in 2010.
"We discovered we have a lot in common. We both work in the health care field and have sons in the military," Saenger said. "I've sent her Packer apparel and she's sent me items too, including a card filled with confetti that I'm still finding all over the house. It's like her way of playing a joke on me."
While the women have never met face-to-face, the two consider each other good friends.
"We have a lot in common including our core beliefs and farm backgrounds," said Pirko. "We haven't continued the yearly cheese/pecan tradition, but we do on occasion send a pecan pie or (OMG!) a Packers sweatshirt to Cowboy country. It's a friendship that I really treasure and I am sure one of these days we will meet."
Wallace's prize-winning pecan pie
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. light corn syrup
1/4 c. melted butter
1 t. vanilla
1 c. chopped pecans (can use 1 1/2 c.)
Beat eggs well in a mixing bowl, add remaining ingredients and pour into a 9" unbaked pie shell. Bake for 375 degrees for 40-45 minutes. Cool completely before serving.