This article is adapted with permission from Sweet Land of Liberty: A History of America in 11 Pies by Rossi Anastopoulo. Copyright © 2022 by Rossi Anastopoulo. Published by Abrams Press.
You’d be surprised by just how much of our past can be told through pie.
Pumpkin pie, for instance, captures stories about the early United States—it reflects the diets of Indigenous people who cultivated squash before European colonizers arrived, and the exchange between those two populations. The ingredients in molasses pie are directly linked to the country’s history of slavery. Mock apple pie, meanwhile, is a distinctly American invention born from times of upheaval and scarcity, war and recession.
But one pie is often overlooked for what it reflects about the American identity: Born of a marketing scheme, this gooey, nutty treat reveals the history of a prized North American food source, reflects the reach of 20th century industrialization, and mirrors the ascent of an ingenious product that has come to shape the modern American diet, for better or worse.
This is the story of the pecan pie.
Unlike apples (and apple pie), which we so often describe as American, pecans are native to the North American continent, predating the country we call the United States by millennia. They were an important food source for many Indigenous people thousands of years ago. In fact, the nut’s name most likely comes from the Algonquin word “paccan,” which refers to a nut that needs to be cracked by stone. Like so much else related to Indigenous food origins and their links to what Americans eat today, that history’s been pretty much erased.
Pecans were cultivated by white people once they settled on the continent, and there are accounts of Thomas Jefferson growing them at Monticello. He even recommended them to his pal George Washington, who installed them amongst the crops of Mount Vernon. But commercial pecan production would not have taken off without Black ingenuity and innovation. In 1847, an enslaved man known only as Antoine invented a way to graft pecan trees, melding the scion of one pecan tree to the rootstock of another for easy propagation. Introduced on the Oak Alley plantation in Vachery, Louisiana, Antoine’s game-changing invention quickly spread across the South, launching lucrative pecan cultivation in states like Georgia and Texas, which would eventually become hot spots for the nut.
Once the commercial pecan market that Antoine made possible sprang up, the nut started to become available everywhere—by 1867 you could find pecans sold in New York markets through the winter and spring. Beyond city markets, pecans were also exhibited at fairs and festivals all over, including the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
As the nut grew more popular, people started to use it more and more in their kitchens. But there are very few accounts of people baking them into pie until the end of the century. In 1886, Harper’s Bazaar declared: “Pecan pie is not only delicious, but is capable of being made ‘a real state pie,’ as an enthusiastic admirer said.” Another early recipe, featuring a meringue, was published in 1897 as Texas Pecan Pie in Ladies’ Home Journal.
But pecan pie really exploded in the early 1900s. What remained a mostly regionalized dish at the turn of the century, was, by the 1940s, everywhere, with recipes in beloved cookbooks like Joy of Cooking. How?
We owe it all to Karo Corn Syrup.
Karo Corn Syrup debuted around the same time as prominent brands like Coca-Cola, Cracker Jack popcorn, and Jell-O, all wildly influential food brands that were invented alongside the industrialization boom of the turn of the 20th century.
A liquid sweetener like honey or maple syrup, Karo Corn Syrup—invented by the Corn Products Refining Company of New York and Chicago and available to consumers by 1902—didn’t crystalize when heated, so it was particularly useful for dessert and candy-making. As the name implies, it was derived from cornstarch, making it a byproduct of the massive (in both literal size and influence) corn industry that would come to define the Midwest.
After launching, Karo bolstered its national profile with a prodigious (and expensive) marketing campaign, one that signified how much the American food system had changed. The company ran full-page ads in Ladies’ Home Journal, which was the definitive source for all things homemaking, and in 1910, it launched a massive and unprecedented $250,000 publicity campaign to make Karo a household name—a staggering cost that would be more than $7 million today. As part of this marketing blitz, the company decided to teach people how to use its product by distributing free cookbooks chock-full of Karo recipes, most notably the Karo Cook Book. (According to the cookbook, which came out in 1920, Karo sold sixty million cans the year before publication.)
This effort to get as many Americans baking with Karo Corn Syrup worked. It began showing up in other cookbooks as early as 1909, and its ascent was propelled by huge historical shifts: the growth in food processing; the drop in prices for mass-produced goods; and improvements to home and cooking technology like the introduction of gas, oil, or electric stoves, which replaced coal and wood stoves. Such changes dovetailed with the continued rise of women’s magazines (including Karo’s favorite billboard Ladies’ Home Journal), which became fertile advertising grounds for packaged products meant to appeal to the housewives doing America’s shopping and cooking.
The Karo pecan pie finally hit the scene in the 1930s—the story goes that the wife of a corporate sales executive dreamed up a nifty little recipe that would put Karo to use. It called for corn syrup, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and pecans, all baked up in a pie shell. It was, quite obviously, a modern pecan pie, one that distinguished itself from the regional versions that had popped up in southern states. Eventually, it became the pecan pie, eclipsing the individual heritage recipes to become the definitive version of this dish.
On the back of Karo’s newfound national prominence, the pecan pie rose to stardom, becoming a household name in its own right. (Karo knew it had a hit on its hands: The company began folding Karo pecan pie into their marketing campaigns, and the recipe soon became a signature piece of content used to usher the brand’s corn syrup into home kitchens.) By the 1950s, when Karo was running recipes for pecan pie in Better Homes and Gardens, nearly every American had either enjoyed a slice of pecan pie, or at the very least knew what it was.
As brilliant as the inventor, the Karo employee’s wife, might have been, it’s pretty likely she wasn’t the first to try baking corn syrup, pecans, and sugar in pie crust. In 1931, the student publication Ward-Belmont Hyphen (of Ward-Belmont College in Tennessee) mentioned “karo-pecan pie” in an article, while a recipe for pecan pie made with Karo was published in 1925 in 800 Proved Pecan Recipes: Their Place in the Menu.
But it’s fairly fitting that corn syrup, perhaps the most industrialized of all commercial food products, was the ingredient that made one obscure pie go national and become a staple of American holidays. For home cooks baking up pecan pie well into the twenty-first century, Karo is still pretty much the only brand you can buy in grocery stores: It has kept that corporate hold.
By Rossi Anastopoulo. Abrams Press.
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It’s a sticky history. You can break from pecan pie’s industrialized roots by replacing the corn syrup with sweeteners like maple syrup or sorghum syrup. Or you can embrace the legacy of this dish, pick up a bottle of Karo, and accept that, despite it all, this corn syrup makes a damn good pie.