The surprising history of sweet potato pie that will make you think twice about pumpkin.

After nine black churchgoers were killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Rose McGee traveled to South Carolina from Minnesota with 56 sweet potatoes pies in tow.

They were made with love by McGee and several volunteers, who just wanted to do their part in the wake of a senseless tragedy. It wasn't the first time she was moved to act. Through her volunteer organization, Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, McGee and volunteers make and deliver sweet potato pies to families in need, first responders, and public servants as a way of community-building. She also made and drove down 30 pies to demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, and worked with a group of First Nations women out of Omaha, Nebraska, to deliver sweet potato pies to people demonstrating at Standing Rock.

McGee (center) at Standing Rock. Photo via Sweet Potato Comfort Pies/Facebook, used with permission.


Why sweet potato pie? Raised in rural Jackson, Tennessee, McGee feels the delicious dessert has always had a special place in her heart. Her grandmother and great-grandmother would make the pie and offer it to friends and neighbors in times of joy and grief.

"Some people, it may have been cake or it may have been something else, maybe a pot of soup," McGee said. "... Whatever that happens to have been, it's time to bring it back because we really do need some healing in our country, in our society, in our world. And sweet potato pie is what resonated with me."  

McGee stores another batch of comfort pies. Image via FOX 9 News | KMSP-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul/YouTube

McGee is not alone. Some people might try to tell you differently, but sweet potato pie is not just pie.

Behind every rich and decadent bite of sweet potato pie, there's also tradition, joy, struggle, and love, especially for the black community. In fact, the history behind sweet potato pie is as rich and exquisite as the dessert itself:

Photo (cropped) by F_A/Flickr.

In the 18th and most of the 19th century, pretty much anything that made it to America, was picked, built, created or made better by a slave.

Sweet potatoes were growing in popularity among wealthy white Southerners, but it was black people doing the planting, harvesting, and cooking. So American sweet potato recipes, including pies, were created and refined by black people. Before long, the vegetable was a culinary staple of any Southern kitchen.

Even though slaves were working with sweet potatoes in the big house, most slave quarters didn't have the right equipment or heat sources at the ready to efficiently and adequately bake a pie.

Slaves in the Caribbean were known to pour boiling sugarcane on top of sweet potatoes to cook them, essentially creating the "candied yams" so popular today. (Note: Sweet potatoes and yams are two different vegetables. I can't stress this enough.)

Only after slavery ended and black people had access to better equipment and key ingredients did sweet potato pies begin to find a place in black kitchens.

After all, sweet potatoes were still a common crop in the South, and when properly stored they were available year-round. Plus, unlike with apples or cherries, just one sweet potato of size could make an entire pie. Still, they were reserved for special occasions because sugar, eggs, and ingredients like cinnamon or nutmeg were expensive and difficult to come by.

A black tenant keeps sweet potatoes in his tobacco barn circa 1940. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott/Library of Congress.

But it would be a scientist, not a chef, who would forever cement sweet potatoes into black culinary history.

In the early 20th century, George Washington Carver, a black scientist and inventor, developed more than 100 uses for sweet potatoes including postage stamp glue and and synthetic rubber. He also came up with his own recipe for sweet potato pie, which featured sliced rounds instead of the typical mash. His research and push to black farmers helped popularize the vegetable, and recipes began to circulate in books and periodicals across the country.

George Washington Carver circa 1910. Image restored by Adam Cuerden. Photo via Tuskegee University Archives/Museum.

Before long, sweet potato pie was a staple in black kitchens across the country and woven in black history.

Today, it's still common to see sweet potato pies in black and Southern households to celebrate family reunions, special occasions, and holidays, particularly Thanksgiving.

It's the epitome of comfort food; creamy and rich with a tender and flaky crust. Some jazz it up with bourbon, rum, or candied nuts. But even at its simplest, sweet potato pie speaks to the soul. It's the perfect expression of care and gratitude.

“There's the joy I see among the volunteers who come and make the pies, and they want to do something," McGee said. "We have to keep moving and bring on hope, the best way we can ... if it's baking cookies or making a pot of soup, or making candy, whatever. It just happens to be for me, sweet potato pie."

Whether you're serving one for a celebration, to strangers in need of support, or for your family at the holidays, each slice is sliver of compassion. And there's always room for that.

Photo by iStock.

Ready to take your dessert spread to the next level? Add sweet potato pie to your next celebration.

This recipe is from Abby Fisher, a former slave turned business owner and cookbook author. Her book, "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking," was published in 1881, an impressive feat for a black woman at the time considering Fisher did not know how to read or write.

135 years later, her sweet potato pie recipe still holds up.

Abby Fisher's Sweet Potato Pie:
Two pounds of potatoes will make two pies. Boil the potatoes soft; peel and mash fine through a cullen-der (colander) while hot; one tablespoonful of butter to be mashed in with the potato. Take five eggs and beat the yelks (yolks) and whites separate and add one gill of milk (one half cup); sweeten to taste; squeeze the juice of one orange, and grate one- half of the peel into the liquid. One half teaspoonful of salt in the potatoes. Have only one crust and that at the bottom of the plate. Bake quickly.

Food writer and author Laura Schenone suggests baking Abby's pie for 45 minutes in a 400-degree oven.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

It's one thing to see a little kid skateboarding. It's another to see a stereotype-defying little girl skateboarding. And it's entirely another to see Paige Tobin.

Paige is a 6-year-old skateboarding wonder from Australia. A recent video of her dropping into a 12-foot bowl on her has gone viral, both for the feat itself and for the style with which she does it. Decked out in a pink party dress, a leopard-print helmet, and rainbow socks, she looks nothing like you'd expect a skater dropping into a 12-foot bowl to look. And yet, here she is, blowing people's minds all over the place.

For those who may not fully appreciate the impressiveness of this feat, here's some perspective. My adrenaline junkie brother, who has been skateboarding since childhood and who races down rugged mountain faces on a bike for fun, shared this video and commented, "If I dropped in to a bowl twice as deep as my age it would be my first and last time doing so...this fearless kid has a bright future!"

It's scarier than it looks, and it looks pretty darn scary.

Paige doesn't always dress like a princess when she skates, not that it matters. Her talent and skill with the board are what gets people's attention. (The rainbow socks are kind of her signature, however.)

Her Instagram feed is filled with photos and videos of her skateboarding and surfing, and the body coordination she's gained at such a young age is truly something.

Here she was at three years old:

And here she is at age four:


So, if she dropped into a 6-foot bowl at age three and a 12-foot bowl at age six—is there such a thing as an 18-foot bowl for her to tackle when she's nine?

Paige clearly enjoys skating and has high ambitions in the skating world. "I want to go to the Olympics, and I want to be a pro skater," she told Power of Positivity when she was five. She already seems to be well on her way toward that goal.

How did she get so good? Well, Paige's mom gave her a skateboard when she wasn't even preschool age yet, and she loved it. Her mom got her lessons, and she's spent the past three years skating almost daily. She practices at local skate parks and competes in local competitions.

She also naturally has her fair share of spills, some of which you can see on her Instagram channel. Falling is part of the sport—you can't learn if you don't fall. Conquering the fear of falling is the key, and the thing that's hardest for most people to get over.

Perhaps Paige started too young to let fear override her desire to skate. Perhaps she's been taught to manage her fears, or maybe she's just naturally less afraid than other people. Or maybe there's something magical about the rainbow socks. Whatever it is, it's clear that this girl doesn't let fear get in the way of her doing what she wants to do. An admirable quality in anyone, but particularly striking to see in someone so young.

Way to go, Paige. Your perseverance and courage are inspiring, as is your unique fashion sense. Can't wait to see what you do next.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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