Potato Pecan Croquettes, a dish that features the modern pecan nut that was born in slavery.

By Carolyn Best

Ten million visitors attended the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, held one hundred years after the founding of the United States. It was the first international World Fair to take place in America and the event’s tremendous success owed much to its role as a showpiece for new inventions. Among these were Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the Remington typewriter and Heinz ketchup. A seemingly less spectacular exhibit, which would have an equally lasting impact, was a display of high-quality pecan nuts that would pave the road to economically viable pecan orchards and provide a profitable new agricultural crop. Unknown to the crowds at the Exposition, the master gardener responsible for the selection and propagation of this superior strain of pecan, afterwards known as the “Centennial,” had been enslaved on a Louisiana plantation.

The pecan is a tree of the New World, the name deriving from an Algonquin word meaning “nut requiring a stone to crack.” Its nuts were widely consumed and traded by the First Peoples who stored them in leather sacks and earthen pits, often timing their migrations to coincide with the seasonal harvesting of the nuts. Indigenous Americans created the original nut milk by fermenting powdered pecans into a drink called “powcohicora.” Spanish explorers of the 16th century came across huge groves of pecans along the fertile river banks of what are now the southern United States. Later, European colonists learned how to harvest and store the rich and buttery nuts.

Pecan trees flourish prolifically in the wild, but their individual variability was a great obstacle to growing them in commercial orchards. It is said that if a thousand nuts were taken from a single tree and planted, the nuts from each of the resulting offspring would differ from those of their parent and siblings in a multitude of ways, such as shell characteristics, flavour, fruiting age and ripening date. Agriculturists trying to domesticate the pecan searched for the occasional wild specimen with optimally large, thin-shelled nuts, hoping they could grow more trees of its ilk.

The first fully successful effort to propagate uniform pecan trees took place in 1846 and is attributed to “a Creole Negro gardener and expert grafter of pecan trees” called Antoine, an enslaved person on the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana. Nothing else is known of him except his age (38 at the time) and valuation (estimated at $1,000 on the plantation accounts ledger). Yet this gifted and barely remembered horticulturist eventually grafted 126 pecan trees for his “owner,” J. T. Roman. It was the nuts from these that were awarded the “Best Pecan Exhibited” prize at the Philadelphia Exposition 30 years later.

Through further refinements in grafting, pecans are now grown in over a thousand varieties, almost all named after the North American nations that first gathered and shared them – the Cheyenne, Choctaw, Mohawk, Shawnee and Sioux. All of these were ultimately made possible by the skills that propagated those first 126 cloned pecan trees in Louisiana. Today we can enjoy this uniquely American soft and sweet nut because of the unaccredited and unrewarded contributions by Antoine, the remarkable gardener, made beneath the yoke of slavery.

Carolyn Best is the former proprietor and chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom, and a regular Glebe Report contributor on food.

Photo: Ellen Harris

By Marisa Romano

A number of bakeries have opened their doors in the Glebe over the years. Some were barely settled in when they closed. Very few others have been around for a while and are here to stay, supported by a steady and loyal clientele. Second Avenue Sweets is one of them.

“Come on in,” was the handwritten note taped to the store’s sandwich board outside the entrance. “Maybe something in here will spark your curiosity.”

And as customers step inside the homey and quaint store located just off Bank Street they are greeted by goods that spark curiosity and everyone’s sweet tooth, including a variety of large cookies, cupcakes generously topped with creamy frosting, flaky fruit scones and cakes that look and smell as if they were just pulled out of grandma’s oven. This is exactly how Ellen Harris, store owner and operator, envisioned her bakery when she opened her doors in the summer of 2007: “Like a table at the farmer’s market.”

Although not in the original plan, the time came for the bakery to offer bread alongside the sweets. Harris’ husband Peter, a Cordon Bleu chef, joined the business and started kneading the first loaves of the white and multigrain breads still offered today. Nowadays, he also rolls by hand all the buttery croissants sold in the store.

Just like grandma’s baking, everything is made from scratch with butter and real cream and is baked in small batches in the kitchen tucked in behind the retail space. From there, happy sounds of the opening and closing of oven doors, the slapping of mixing machines and the voices of bakers reach the store. Over the years the store has hired people with different skills, from professional bakers to high school co-op students who have had the opportunity to peek into the operations of a small retail business and taste the products as they come out of the oven.

“What about the recipes?” I ask Harris. “Some recreate my grandmother’s favourites like chocolate chip cookies and the milk chocolate cake; some have been developed here in the store over the years and some are Peter’s. He brought them with him when he started working here,” she tells me.

Like many businesses in the Glebe, the store survived the highs and lows of Bank Street reconstruction thanks to the backing and encouragement of its customers. Harris has also managed to keep it going while growing a family. Her girls took naps in the back of the store as infants, played there as toddlers and now, all grown up, lend the occasional hand to the family business, like penning notes on the sandwich board.

The bakery has undergone changes over the years. What’s in store for the future? “I do not know about the future,” says Harris, “but for now we are here to stay, more for the love of it than for the money.”

Thank you, Ellen, and yes, we will come in to look for what sparks our curiosity.

Check the store’s website to place your order and find out when your favourite bread will make its way onto the rack behind the counter.

Ellen Harris shares the recipe for Second Avenue Sweets French Toast featuring the bakery’s own challah bread.

Notes on challah bread: We make and sell challah bread on Fridays. It can be reserved by phoning in an order. We also offer it frozen in our freezer section and it can be easily defrosted in a few hours.

Marisa Romano is a foodie and scientist with a sense of adventure who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods that bring people together.

Share this