Even without Patti LaBelle and James Wright setting social media abuzz with a lot of talk (and singing) about a certain dessert, I would still daydream this week about sweet potato pie.
For millions of African Americans like me, Thanksgiving Day means sweet potatoes, not pumpkins, and we love sweet potatoes so much that we won’t settle for having a sole side dish of candied sweet potatoes (we call them “yams,” but that’s another story) or sweet potato casserole. No, we have to double down on this tasty tuber and serve up sweet potato pie for dessert, too. Sure, we eat this soul food classic year-round, but this is the week that the sweet potato pie really shines. It doesn’t have to be the only dessert option on the holiday table, but it has to at least be part of the lineup. Otherwise, at least in African American households, the spread is immediately suspect.
As much as sweet potato pie is beloved within the black community and in the South, it doesn’t seem to get much love elsewhere. Our national pie divide is deepest when people choose between pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving Day. And that got me wondering: How did sweet potato pie become a soul-food favorite over its chief Thanksgiving rival? It started happening centuries ago, and it didn’t follow the path that you might expect.
When tracing the history of African American cuisine, it’s best to take stock of what was inherited from West Africa, our ancestral homeland. I’d thought and hoped that sweet potato pie had West African roots, but the trail begins in Peru, where sweet potatoes originated. As early as the 16th century, Spanish traders shipped sweet potatoes from the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean on two different routes, one headed to West Africa and the other to Western Europe. West African cooks first experimented with sweet potatoes as a possible substitute for the other root crops (cassava, plantain and yams) that they used to make a typical meal of some sort of starch served with a savory sauce, soup or stew typically made with fish and vegetables. One particular specialty was fufu, in which a root is boiled, mashed or pounded and shaped into balls. For those who have made sweet potato pie, it doesn’t seem to be much of a leap to add eggs, milk, sugar and spices to make a dessert out of a savory mash.
But West African cooks probably never tried, for two reasons. First, the sweet spud was a complete dud to the West African palate. They didn’t like the sweet potato’s taste, disparagingly called it “the white man’s yam” and focused primarily on eating the leaves. Second, even if they liked sweet potatoes, West Africans would not naturally think of cooking them for “dessert.” That was something Europeans did. Alas, a West African origin theory of sweet potato pie goes wanting.
Unlike West Africans, Western Europeans gave the sweet potato a sensational reception. It quickly earned a reputation as an aphrodisiac, got a shout-out in Shakespeare’s play “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (“Let the sky rain potatoes”) and started showing up on England’s royal tables. Henry VIII’s voracious appetite for sweet potato tarts, the pie’s close cousin, immediately conferred an elite status on sweet potatoes as a dessert. Imagine if someone had painted the king eating a sweet potato tart with an ecstatic expression on his face. I’m convinced that would have gone viral.
History is silent on whether or not Henry VIII specifically requested sweet potatoes to fill that pastry; but if he did, his royal cook probably took the same approach as his West African counterparts by substituting sweet potatoes, the new root, into old recipes that utilized other roots. The only difference was that Western Europe had a dessert tradition, and roots and other vegetables were just as likely as fruit to be featured in savory and sweet pie recipes. There’s no existing recipe for Henry VIII’s sweet potato tart, but a high-profile English cookbook published a couple of centuries after his reign suggests an answer. Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” published in 1747, was wildly popular with housewives in Britain and its colonies. In it, root vegetable “puddings” were made by boiling and grating, mashing or slicing the vegetable, then adding butter, eggs, milk and sugar before baking it in an open-faced pie shell. Sweet potatoes weren’t the only thing that got the treatment: Irish potatoes, parsnips, pumpkins and squashes were used interchangeably in the recipes.
Wealthy American colonial kitchens eagerly adopted the latest culinary trends out of England, and the Big Houses at plantations in the antebellum South were no exception. Flip through the pages of the iconic southern cookbooks used in those elite kitchens – “The Virginia Housewife,” “The Kentucky Housewife” and “The Carolina Housewife” — and you will find strikingly similar recipes for pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie and squash pie existing side by side in the dessert sections. Southern cooks, black and white, turned more often to recipes for sweet potatoes because, in the South, they were easier to grow than edible pumpkins. Using the same logic, Northern cooks preferred the easy-growing gourds for their pies. Using that sweet potato bounty, making the desserts in the Big House was often tasked to enslaved African American cooks, and it was through their expertise that sweet potato pie enters black culture.
Despite what was happening in the Big House, sweet potato pie took longer to catch on in the plantation’s slave cabins. In the antebellum South, dessert was not a regular part of a meal pattern that primarily consisted of boiled vegetables, corn bread and buttermilk. During the week, if there was a dessert, it would be a piece of corn bread with some molasses poured on top or some fruit. In addition, slave cabins rarely had the cooking equipment or appliances necessary to adequately bake a pie. The first sweet potato dessert in the slave cabin was a whole sweet potato roasted in the embers of a dying fire. Because of the glassy look that the outside would get from the caramelization of the vegetable’s natural sugars, they were described as being “candied.” Only with the advent of improved and affordable stoves and increased access to processed ingredients such as white flour and sugar could African American cooks transition from roasting sweet potatoes to making cakes, cobblers and pies. Such composed desserts became a part of the special-occasion menu for weekends and holidays.
After Emancipation, the ethnic and regional divides between pumpkin and sweet potato pies were laid bare in the national and regional media. Pumpkin pies were the pride of the North (especially New England), becoming closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday by the late 1800s, and sweet potato pies were the South’s preferred pie, as well as an African American favorite. As millions of African Americans left the South for different parts of the country, they took their love of sweet potato pies with them, resulting in a national profile for a perpetually regional dessert.
I know that despite the high-class pedigree of sweet potato pie, some of you will adhere to a philosophy of pumpkin pie supremacy. I grieve for you, but not for long. Ultimately, it just means more sweet potato pie for me.