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.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Wil Wheaton speaking to an audience at 2019 Wondercon.

In an era of debates over cancel culture and increased accountability for people with horrendous views and behaviors, the question of art vs. artist is a tricky one. When you find out an actor whose work you enjoy is blatantly racist and anti-semitic in real life, does that realization ruin every movie they've been a part of? What about an author who has expressed harmful opinions about a marginalized group? What about a smart, witty comedian who turns out to be a serial sexual assaulter? Where do you draw the line between a creator and their creation?

As someone with his feet in both worlds, actor Wil Wheaton weighed in on that question and offered a refreshingly reasonable perspective.

A reader who goes by @avinlander asked Wheaton on Tumblr:

"Question: I have more of an opinion question for you. When fans of things hear about misconduct happening on sets/behind-the-scenes are they allowed to still enjoy the thing? Or should it be boycotted completely? Example: I've been a major fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer since I was a teenager and it was currently airing. I really nerded out on it and when I lost my Dad at age 16 'The Body' episode had me in such cathartic tears. Now we know about Joss Whedon. I haven't rewatched a single episode since his behavior came to light. As a fan, do I respectfully have to just box that away? Is it disrespectful of the actors that went through it to knowingly keep watching?"

And Wheaton offered this response, which he shared on Facebook:

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."