Louisiana’s place in the history of pecans is of meaningful significance. Louisiana, like all of the Southeastern states has a prolific amount of native pecan trees as well as managed, cultivated and improved pecan orchards. The state also sports one of the largest “yard crops” of pecans in the south. Those pecans that are typically hand-harvested by home owners who have a few pecan-bearing trees in their yard. Some pecans will be picked and kept by the home owner for cooking and baking while the remainder of pecans are sold to local fruit stands or small town stores to be accumulated by a larger buyer for commercial shelling purposes.
Going way back to 1845, it was Antoine, the first-name-only slave-gardener from New Orleans who is credited as the first person to successfully propagate pecans. By grafting a superior wild pecan to seedling pecan stocks he was able to create a new pecan plant or what is called today; an improved variety. He named his new pecan “Centennial” as an honor for winning the Best Pecan Exhibited award at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. His 1876 planting, which eventually became 126 Centennial trees, was the first official planting of improved pecans. The successful use of grafting techniques led to more improved variety orchards of superior genotypes and proved to be a milestone for the pecan industry. When successful propagation began on a commercial level the pecan boom was underway. As a result, pecan farmers of Louisiana experimented with more varieties and were able to have a significant role in shaping the future of the commercial pecan market in the South.
However, more than anything, it is Louisiana’s Port of New Orleans that may have done more for the early promotion and consumption of pecans than anything else. The fact that pecans were a decidedly Southern crop and the strategic position of the Port of New Orleans helped the pecan become a viable export product. From the shores of Louisiana, through the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, pecans were shipped around the globe. The New Orleans Port became the international gateway for the pecan to travel to global destinations and earn its reputation as being America’s favorite, most desired nut.
The success of the pecan trade through the Port of New Orleans led to more pecan orchards to be planted in Louisiana and other regions throughout the South. During the 1700 and 1800’s the pecan became a key item of commerce for American colonists. Pecan orchards consisting of diverse nuts with various sizes, shapes, shell characteristics, flavor, fruiting ages and ripening dates made the nut even more desirable to the growers and consumers alike.
Louisiana is known, throughout the world, as having one of the most celebrated food cultures on the planet. We are known for our love of life and our wide variety of Cajun and Creole foods. It should be no surprise that pecans show up in many of our favorite southern recipes and have made their way into our southern lifestyle. Pecan pies, pecan pralines or pecans, naturally, right out of the shell bless our tables each and every fall. The pecan has become part of our southern tradition.
While Louisiana cannot boast of the largest or most prolific amount of pecans being harvested in any one state these days, it will be forever noted that Louisiana did more to shape an industry that eventually led to the global popularity of our true American nut – the pecan.