I live on an old street with a new life. It was once a dirt road for mules and wagons. It is now a busy one-way haven for traffic. The neighborhood begins on a high point, on acres of land surrounding a house built in the 1840s.
Whether old houses with porches or smaller cottages, what we all have in common are pecan trees, once part of a grove stretching from the big house on the hill to the town square. The trees are decades old, but they still know their seasons and their autumn days of bearing nuts are repeated, year after year, if we’re lucky.
For now, as summer breathes her last breath, the pecan trees are still covered in canopies of green leaves. Later, as leaves fall, we will see clusters of green nuts, tight in their skins, waiting for Mother Nature to remind them, once brown and plump, a good wind will come and send them to the ground.
Over the years, there have been pecan seasons when the nuts covered the grass. Other years, nary a pecan could be found.
As September begins, we recall the August of 1619 and a ship carrying 20 enslaved Africans to Point Comfort in Virginia.
Two hundred years will pass before the genealogical tree of slaves in America includes a young man named Antoine. His days are spent on the Oak Valley Plantation in Louisiana. His owner has discovered Antoine can tame his garden.
In the mid-1840s, a plantation owner upriver sends cuttings from a pecan tree on his land to the owner of Oak Valley Plantation, who, having no interest in flora and fauna, passes the cutting to Antoine.
Antoine grafts the cutting to a tree on the plantation. As the tree thrives and bears nuts, he grafts cuttings to other trees. In time, there is a grove of pecan trees.
It takes almost 40 years for the pecans growing in the Louisiana heat to be coveted and for specimen pecans from the plantation to be ferried to the Centennial Exposition of 1876, held in Philadelphia.
The pecans Antoine grew from a slip of a tree cutting are praised for their size and sweetness of nut ‘meat.’ The variety of nuts is christened “Centennial.”
We take comfort in believing success leads to a better life, but, sadly, after the Exposition of 1876, horticultural tomes make no mention of the slave named Antoine. He is a victim of history and the pecans he grew have disappeared as nuts with more agreeable properties — thin shells and larger in size — have been propagated over the years.
In my well-worn and oft-used cookbooks, nearly every recipe is named for the kitchen wizard who put together the best pan of cornbread or the most melt-in-your- mouth dinner rolls. Southerners are known for their passed-down recipes, lasting so long an ingredient is hard to find. Pickled peach salad, anyone?
A pecan pie, topped with nuts, perfectly laid out, looks like an invitation. My recipe is from an old Georgia cookbook. Foraging for pecans as the weather cools, I will be planning a name change for the salted nuts offered before Thanksgiving dinner.
Now known as “Game Day Pecans,” the new moniker will be “Antoine’s Pecans.”
Respect is due for a young Antoine, who had the same calling as another American, Thomas Jefferson, who doted on his pecan grove at Monticello. Both were dedicated gardeners.
Word is Jefferson gave George Washington seedlings of pecan trees to plant at Mount Vernon. We know Washington and Jefferson’s stories, but Antoine, the slave, has not been celebrated as the self-taught arborist who, through grafting of good pecan stock, created the first pecans, consistent in flavor and size, and sold commercially in the early South. It’s time.