Pecan Pie Past and Present
Without pecan pie,Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving at my house. It has simply always been there. Therefore, I figured that pecan pie must have sat on the Thanksgiving tables of my southern ancestors just as sure as cornbread dressing. When I learned Karo was a modern invention, I figured my ancestors had probably used a local cane syrup for pecan pie baking. I was wrong.
Turns out, the pie we all know as pecan pie did not even exist until the twentieth century. Prior to that, the South had its chess pies, syrup pies and brown sugar pies, but none of these included nuts.
Although pecan pie was late to the table, it nonetheless represents a much deeper history of cultural connections in the South. Pecan pie demonstrates how Native horticulture, African American ingenuity, and European cooking all came together, across time and place, on the Southern plate.
The pecan pie story begins with the earliest inhabitants of the South who first discovered wild pecan trees growing along river banks in what is now southern Texas and northern Mexico. Native southerners prized the nuts for eating and planted them throughout the Mississippi and Red River Valleys. They later shared this favorite food with early settlers who also sought to grow pecans in their farms and gardens.
Because pecan offspring were unpredictable in what kind of nuts they produced, pecans remained trees for home use. It took nearly a hundred years before the horticultural genius of an enslaved gardener in Louisiana could solve the problem of how to grow reliable pecan trees for markets across the country. Antoine—only his first name is recorded— planted the first successful commercial orchard at Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana during the final days before the Civil War. Offspring of his orchard were featured at the World’s Fair of 1876.
Commercial success for the pecan soon followed along with the first printed recipe. That recipe, found in Harper’s Bazaar of 1886, featured a milk based custard. The recipe can be found here on the always helpful foodtineline.org.
The twentieth century was well underway when the first recipes for pecan pies made with syrup appeared in collections and cookbooks. Karo Syrup popularized the use of corn syrup and on their website even claim that the (unnamed) wife of one of their (unnamed) executives invented the actual recipe. This failure to name names leaves one more than a tad skeptical. Still, whoever wedded the southern tradition of syrup pie with the south’s native pecans was indeed brilliant. The combination was so successful that many of us cannot imagine holidays without it. Pecan pie underscores once again that the south’s richest inheritance lies in its melding of differing cultures.