Pecans are distinctively American nuts. Not only did they originate here, (somewhere in the central southern US), they’ve never really caught on anywhere else. It may be because the pecan isn’t all that distinctive as compared to the world’s other great nuts. It may be because it has a fantastically hard shell (the Algonquin word “paccan” means “nut you have to hit with a rock”). Then again, there may be no rational explanation. Ah well. All the more for us.
Pecans were of course feeding the Indians long before the colonists ever arrived. There is evidence to show that various tribes cultivated them, planting them along migration and/or trade routes for easy access. Indians ate them as-is out of the shell, but also mashed them to powder for use as a porridge or stew thickener. Mixed with water, pecan powder was a handy high-fat baby formula. Whole roasted nuts stored well for long journeys.
The early popularity of the pecan is evidenced by the fact that Thomas Jefferson once presented George Washington with a gift of several pecan saplings. The trees they grew into are still alive on Mount Vernon.
Cultivation of the pecan was started in 1772 by a Long Island-based nut meat company. Yet the most prominent figure in early pecan agriculture by far was a Louisiana slave by the name of Antoine (last name unknown, if any). It was he who developed a grafting method that led to significant improvements in the quality of both the trees and the nuts. Today the vast majority of the world’s cultivated pecan trees, some 500 varieties, spring from his original “Centennial” tree stock.
Nowadays, pecans are grown throughout the South and West, including Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, California and of course Texas. They are the second most popular nut in the US after the peanut (which of course isn’t really a nut all).
Overseas, they’re gown in small quantities in Israel, Brazil, South Africa, and in New South Wales, Australia.