In search of pecans and history

Published 3:00 pm Monday, October 17, 2022

‘m on vacation but as the pecan season is getting ready, I wanted to share this re-post from last fall with you again.

On my recent morning walks, I have been going through neighborhoods that I played in as a child, looking for pecan trees that I picked up pecans from in my youth.

This time of year, my sisters and I enjoyed going to pick up pecans when we were kids. We knew the neighborhoods that had the best ones. Our grandmother taught us a lot about pecans. She told us the Cape Fear variety of pecans were the first ones to ripen by mid-September. Pawnees were the easiest pecans to crack open, and Stuarts were the big round ones that people liked most because they were ‘meaty.’

Children would pick up the pecans and the adults would sell them to Gerard’s Grocery Store on Gladden Street. Gerard’s was next door to Bill’s Hot Dogs back then and had the best assortment of Christmas candy, nuts of all kinds, fruit and other wonderful foods and treats, especially this time of year.

The pecan tree I went to most as a kid was the one a few doors down from our house.  Now as an adult, I went to that tree last week and I was very surprised to see it was still bearing pecans. My mother picked up pecans from it when she was a child.

There were many pecan trees in Washington but the most popular place to look for pecans was the ‘Pecan Grove,’ The Pecan Grove was a ten-block area that stretched from Carolina Avenue to Eleventh Street north and south, and Pierce to Washington Streets east and west.  On some of that land in the Pecan Grove, the Washington Colored School was built in 1924.  During the Civil War, the Pecan Grove area was a part of the Fort Washington encampment area. There were Contraband Camps in that area and some of the older folks remembered how it was there and told stories about it.  They also said the Union Soldiers were so fond of the pecans, they took barrels of them back home to the north when the war was over.

Another story the older folks passed on was that the Union soldiers loved the pecan pies, pecan gravy, pecan biscuits, pecan milk and other pecan-based foods the free Black women sold to the Sutlers, who then sold these items to the soldiers.

A Sutler was a civilian merchant who set up shop near an Army outpost, camp or field and sold provisions of all kinds.  Here, they sold the food items in their Sutler Tents (‘little stores’) that were near Fort Washington, Fort Ceres which was on Elmwood Plantation, and Fort McKibbin near where the Estuarium is today. They claimed the name ‘Pecan Pie’ originated here.

I’m not sure at all about that story as many other places claimed to ‘invent’ pecan pie. Places like New Orleans, Texas, South Carolina and Georgia. One thing though, the older folks could entertain us kids with the best stories of how things got started (now whether those stories proved true or not is another story.  (That is one reason I research so much!)

One correct thing they told me was that pecan was an Indian (Native American) word. Pecan is an Algonquian Indian word meaning ‘a nut that must be hit with a rock to open.’  There were countless ways to use pecans and today you can buy pecan meal and flour from many stores and there are many various ways to use pecans in recipes you can easily find on the internet.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.