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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