“Of all the Lone Star State’s unique culinary dishes, perhaps none say ‘Texas’ more sweetly than pecan pie.” —state House Concurrent Resolution 53 and state Senate Concurrent Resolution 12.
With a gap-tooth grin and the charisma of a politician, Georgetown first-grader Diego Rodriguez stepped up to the microphone inside a Texas House of Representatives committee room.
“Mr. Chairman, Mrs. Vice Chair and members of the committee,” he said in a tiny voice. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon. My name is Arturo Rodriguez III, but everyone calls me Diego.”
Then he introduced them to a dream he and his classmates shared at Ford Elementary School: to see a piece of legislation they created become a law in Texas.
“Today, we are here to ask for the pecan pie to become the official Texas State Pie,” he said. “My classmates will present some of our reasons.”
And present they did, in what could go down as The Most Adorable House Committee Hearing in Texas History, in an arena that has intimidated more than a few adult witnesses throughout the years.
Some of the children were loquacious and elegant, some straightforward and punchy. Some read from statements they had prepared, while others spoke off the cuff—a talent not all elected officials can manage with ease.
All were charming, honest and well-informed about the bill by Rep. Marsha Farney and Sen. Charles Schwertner, both Georgetown Republicans, that would designate the dessert an official state symbol.
“The nuts are good for you, and the pie tastes great,” said Cooper Ashby, standing at a microphone set up especially for the students next to the adult-sized podium usually used by witnesses and lawmakers.
“Texans generally agree on two things: Texas pecan pies are, hands down, the best, especially when made with Texas pecans by a Texan, and secondly, whether served hot or cold, with a scoop of ice cream or without, pecan pie is indeed the perfect ending to any meal.” —HCR 53 and SCR 12
Thanks to the efforts of Diego and his classmates, who testified before the House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee on Wednesday, the bill was passed unanimously by the committee and sent to the Local and Consent Calendar—the legislative fast track for bills with no opposition.
The legislation now goes through one more committee process before hitting the House and Senate floors for approval.
The bill was the creation of Mary Mikeska’s first-grade class while the students were learning about state symbols, including the pecan tree and the pecan itself (both designated as such in 1919).
In a suit jacket, vest and striped tie, Diego told lawmakers that he and his father, Art Rodriguez, had discussed “how cool it would be to create a law for Texas.”
“Over the summer, my dad and I were talking about laws. He knows a little bit about them because he’s a lawyer,” he said, eliciting chuckles from the committee.
After they put the idea to Mikeska’s classroom, Deigo’s father spoke with the class about how the legislative process works, and the students narrowed the proposal to three options: making cowgirls and cowboys the state occupation, making oil the state industry and making pecan pie the state pie.
They took a vote, the pecan pie won and the children crafted their arguments.
“It’s the best thing I ever tasted,” Caroline Rutledge told the lawmakers. “It is really pretty because I see lots of people have it on holidays.”
The bill was drafted by the pros at the state Capitol. Texan pecan growers produce 20 percent of all the pecans grown throughout the United States, and the Lone Star State claims bragging rights for the invention of pecan pie.
The first record of it, according to the legislation, dates back to 1886 when the humor magazine “Texas Siftings” described it as “capable of being made into a ‘real state pie.'”
In 1914, The Christian Science Monitor featured a recipe for “Texas Pecan Pie,” though the version known today was reportedly dreamed up by the wife of an executive at the Karo Syrup company in 1930.
To help the bill win passage, students wrote letters and drew pictures for lawmakers, interviewed senators and testified before a Texas Senate committee earlier in the week.
“Even earlier today they’re talking about how laws are made,” Farney said. “These are 6-year-olds.”
At that point, Committee Chairman Ryan Guillen switched on his microphone.
“Would you mind sharing that flow chart with us?” he said to laughter from the audience. “Some of us need more help with that.”
Just before the hearing, the students visited all seven committee members’ offices and dropped off a pecan pie, homemade in Georgetown, “for your research purposes,” Farney said.
“They’re not only learning the legislative process, they’re also learning the lobbying process,” Guillen quipped, referring to the practice of lobbyists bringing food to Capitol staffers.
Said Vice Chairwoman Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin: “Speaking for myself, I can tell you that the pie in my office is gone. It did not walk out of the office.”
Describing their experiences in the Senate, Diego spoke about how much fun they had.
“We even got free sodas from Sen. Schwertner’s office!” he said. “That was one of my favorite parts!”
To which Guillen replied: “Obviously, Sen. Schwertner knows how to campaign.”
Diego’s father, who served as a liaison for Mikeska, said afterward that he was very proud of Diego and all the students who took part in the project.
“Definitely their lobbying skills are to be admired. The kids loved that their ideas were heard and that they worked on doing something for the State of Texas,” Rodriguez wrote in an email. “Diego was very excited about testifying and worked hard on his speech. He did a fantastic job. (That’s my fatherly bias shining through.)”
“Pecan pie recipes are varied and numerous, with differences regarding the sugar-to-syrup ratio and the size and consistency of the nuts, and are a matter of debate, strong opinion, and deeply held family tradition.”—HCR 53 and SCR 12
During her testimony, Elizabeth McCallum rattled off the ingredients for the pecan pie she learned how to make with her grandmother Judy, a favorite dessert of her grandfather Lloyd that takes just an hour to make, and told the committee how her family enjoys it every year on Thanksgiving.
The pecan pie would make a “terrific” state symbol, she said.
“It is yummy and easy to make,” she said.
The children also told lawmakers what they had learned during the project, including what a hard job it is to be a politician and how slow the legislative process is.
“There are lots of steps in making it happen,” Diego said. “I think lawmakers are important and work hard for the people of Texas. Lawmakers have hard jobs and make tough decisions. Thank you for the difficult job you do.”
Then he added, reading from the letter he had written: “Your friend, Diego.”
Elizabeth added that it is “very exciting testifying like grownups usually do.”
After the testimony, Guillen read off more than a dozen names of students and their parents, as well as Mikeska, who had registered in favor but did not wish to testify.
But committee member Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican and chairman of the House Public Education Committee, had other ideas.
“Can we call the teacher?” he said.
As Mikeska stood, Aycock thanked her for guiding the students through the project.
“I want you to know that in a time when many people say that education is broken,” he told her, “you are a good example that it is not.”
And then the lawmakers all did something that is rare for them during the typically staid committee hearing process:
They gave her, and her students, a round of applause.