As American as Pecan Pie: The Incredibly True Story of Antoine & the Pecan
Foggy Oak Alley, Great River Road, Vacherie, Louisiana – Photo in the Public Domain, National Scenic Byways Program; inset of book cover, ‘Antoine of Oak Alley’ by Katy Morlas Shannon
As we careen into the holiday season with visions of pecan pie dancing in our heads, its a good time to reflect on the true origins of our many quintessentially American blessings. This is the story of an enslaved man, Antoine, the de facto grandfather of the American pecan industry. His story makes clear that our gratitude for innovations – the spoils of which we still enjoy today – must go to the man and not to the institutions that bound him and tried to bind his spirit. This breezy telling of “Antoine & the Pecan” was published prior to, but in the same year as a biography on the innovative gardener. Historian Katy Morlas Shannon‘s insightful 2021 biography, ‘Antoine of Oak Alley’ is a book we intend to feature on our pages again in the future. – Editor
All of those Stuckey’s pecan log rolls we devoured as a kid (and, admittedly, still devour as an adult) may not have been possible without the work of one man – a 19th century gardener slave from Louisiana named Antoine.
Back in the 1800s, pecans weren’t really new to the American diet. Native Americans up and down the Mississippi River from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico were eating them for hundreds of years before Europeans first set foot on the continent. When the Europeans did come, fur traders carried pecans to help sustain them on their journeys from the wild frontier to the East Coast. In the 18th century, founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planted pecans at Mount Vernon and Monticello, respectively, and it’s even said that George Washington always kept pecans as a snack in his coat pocket.
Over in Louisiana, there was a market for pecans and seeing this opportunity was plantation owner Dr. A.E. Columb who attempted to graft twigs from his luxuriant pecan tree that produced large, thin-shelled nuts in copious amounts onto other pecan trees. Like those who had tried in the past, Dr. Columb’s efforts were unsuccessful. Growing frustrated, he heard that there was a talented gardener right across the way at the Oak Alley Plantation. Columb went to pay Jacques Telesphore Roman, the owner of the plantation, a visit. Roman guided the doctor to his talented gardener, an enslaved man named Antoine. After meeting with Antoine and discussing his ordeal, Columb gave Mr. Roman a twig off of his best pecan tree, and, in turn, Mr. Roman gave the graftwood to Antoine. Thus, the ‘Centennial’ became the first variety of pecan that was successfully propagated by grafting.
Unfortunately, not much is known about Antoine other than he was a slave and a gardener and a very adept gardener at that. We know this because Antoine was the first person in history who learned how to propagate pecan trees. That is, Antoine knew how to make near exact copies of successfully producing pecan trees, thereby turning the pecan into a cash crop – not an easy task at the time. Then the American Civil War came along and nearly changed everything.