Not too long ago I was sitting at one of the outside tables at a restaurant on the Gulf Coast of Florida enjoying the radiant, purple-blue sunset and thinking that my favorite food in the world was a fresh black grouper sandwich, which, coincidently, I happened to be eating. Suddenly, out of the purple-blue and over my right shoulder, I caught a snatch of conversation:
"What I like best is the food I ate when I was 6 years old."
"You're right!" I blurted. Of course it is; to a child food is an ongoing adventure in taste--an uncomplicated series of accepted or rejected discoveries. Other than eating, a child's involvement in the process--planning, shopping, preparation, serving and then cleaning up--is small and, best of all, he doesn't even have to pay!
In my case it went even farther: There couldn't have been a 6-year-old in the world who ate better than I. My mother, a New Englander, was a superlative cook and Sally Mae, who worked for my family, was, in her own right, Mother's equal. Sally Mae, though, was a specialist in what has recently come to be known as soul food, a cuisine we recognized and referred to as Like Sally Mae's: "Can't you make it Like Sally Mae's, Mom?"
Every year my parents took two vacations: One with us kids and one without. During the latter we were left in Sally Mae's charge and, after we'd ravaged Mother's thoughtful stockpile of groceries, Sally Mae, who was from south Georgia, hit her stride: We ate fried chicken and corn bread, fried mullet, catfish in a crunchy cornmeal batter, pork chops, ham hocks, chitterlings and ribs. There were collard greens that had simmered for hours with bacon and salt pork; black-eyed peas flavored with okra, bacon and molasses; big servings of fluffy-white rice and, instead of ice cream for dessert, we had the most wonderful thing in the world: warm sweet-potato pie.
That was eating at its carefree finest and, although I was a little too young to appreciate what the food was, or to understand its Afro-American origins, Sally Mae's food made a lifelong impression on me.
Of all the dishes she fixed (she never cooked), her sweet-potato pie remains the most memorable; it was divine--a creamy-warm sweetness that could, and did, follow any meal.
The pie was similar in color and texture to pumpkin pie, but it was far more subtle and delicately flavored. That, I suppose, was due to the sweet potato, which is not even a second cousin to our white potato, but instead, a close relative of the morning glory. The sweet potato is the root of a tropical vine indigenous to the western hemisphere. In fact, it was cultivated and widely used by the Pre-Colombians, but never, I suspect, was the sweet potato used as well as it was by Sally Mae.
Sally Mae kept her recipes in her head, and--let this be a lesson to those who did likewise--she took them all to her grave. The following recipe represents years of evolution and countless visits to soul food restaurants throughout the South and from coast to coast, but it would, I believe, have gone neck and neck with the original. SWEET-POTATO PIE (Makes 1 9-inch pie) 3 to 4 medium sweet potatoes (1 pound), peeled and quartered 4 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup brown sugar 3 lightly beaten eggs 1/2 cup milk 1/3 cup light corn syrup 1 teaspoon minced lemon peel 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg Pinch salt 1 9-inch deep-dish single-crust pie shell, fully baked*
There are, by the way, two types of sweet potato, and they are vastly different: one is dry, with meat that is pink to yellow in color, and the other, the one this recipe calls for, is moist and soft with orange-colored meat. It is frequently--and erroneously--referred to as a yam.
Immerse the quartered sweet potatoes in boiling water and cook, uncovered, until they are tender (9 to 13 minutes). Dry the sweet potatoes on paper towels and then pure'e them in a food processor. If a processor is not available, rub the sweet potatoes through a fine sieve with the back of a spoon. Set aside, and allow to cool.
Beat the butter and brown sugar together with a wooden spoon in a deep mixing bowl. When the mixture is fluffy, add the pure'ed sweet potatoes and, still beating, gradually add the eggs. Add the remaining ingredients and continue beating until the filling is completely smooth.
Pour the filling evenly into the shell, and place the pie in a 450-degree oven. Reduce the temperature to 325 degrees after 10 minutes, and bake for another 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Sweet potato pie can be served warm (my preference) or at room temperature.
*Note: Use a basic pie crust recipe from any good book, equalizing, if necessary, the amounts of butter and shortening. Also, add 1 tablespoon sugar. Fully bake the shell before filling it.