Last week my son came home from school and said, “Mom can you make something for me from black people that I can take to my black history month party.” We went back and forth discussing stories about the family reunions I grew up with and what kinds of foods were served. I mentioned sweet potato pie and he was immediately like YES!
Now, I explained to my son that I have never liked sweet potato pie mostly because I don’t really care much for things that are overly sweet nor do I like mushy foods. This didn’t dissuade him though. He had his heart set on this pie.
I’m pretty confident in my cooking skills and although I didn’t care for sweet potato pie, I had eaten it several times and knew what the texture and taste should be. I also figured that there had to be a recipe that I would like and would be what my son wanted, a recipe that was “culturally authentic.” That is actually what my son said, “culturally authentic.” These kids! I promised I’d figure it out and I commenced my search for the perfect recipe.
I posted online that I wanted the black people in my following to share with me any family recipes that they might have and that I wanted one that was “culturally authentic.” I got quite a bit of backlash from non-black folks who were offended, many saying they have a great recipe but they weren’t black so it didn’t matter. One guy went on a tangent about how black people didn’t invent sweet potato pie. The list of negative comments were shocking but I have a policy of no social media debates. I just have bigger fish to fry and everyone is a big talker behind the comfort of a computer.
I was shocked though because I thought it obvious that I knew not only black people baked sweet potato pie. However, as with any cultural food, it’s not the food itself that makes it belong to a people but the way it’s made. Black people in America, particularly from the south, have a specific way of making sweet potato pie and that’s what I wanted to make. Why was this so offensive?
Thankfully, I had a couple black women chime in with useful recipes and tips. I even got a recipe from a friend at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. This was the recipe I had actually wanted to go with but it was a bit too complicated for my schedule. I needed something a little easier and quicker to make.
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.“The surprising history of sweet potato pie that will make you think twice about pumpkin” by Erin Canty
Ironically, through the research I conducted, I found out that black people did in fact invent sweet potato pie.
How Sweet Potato Pie Became Soul Food
The British took the tradition of making pumpkin pies to West African in the 16th century. However, the Africans made the dessert using yams because they didn’t have pumpkins. When the pie making tradition was later brought to America during slavery, the African slaves once again transformed the dessert into something even sweeter using sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet and have nine times as much sugar per cup, as well as five times more calories than pumpkin however, they are also higher in fiber, potassium, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.“Comfort Foods: Sweet Potato Vs. Pumpkin” by Heidi Runia
Some people might not know but yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing. The word yam in African dialects was either or a few other terms with a few other meanings. Yams are monocots from the Dioscorea family, often referred to as “Oyame or Yam Yam” in several bantu-based languages. But, sweet potatoes are from the Morning Glory plant family are is far sweeter than yams. Actually, when yams first came over with the enslaved Africans from the Caribbean they would cover it in the sugar cane sap. That’s how we got candied yams! 🙂
It was during the 18th century that sweet potato pie recipes made their first cookbook appearance. Later in the 19th century, Fannie Famer featured a recipe for glazed sweet potatoes in the Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Shortly after, inventor George Washington Carver released over 100 uses for the vegetable, including sweet potato pie. Abby Fisher would go on to publish her sweet potato pie recipe in 1881.
During slavery, black people made sweet potato pie for large gatherings and celebrations. As with my family, that tradition continues to this day and sweet potato pie is a staple part of black family meals, what we call “Soul Food.”
National Cook a Sweet Potato Day
My son’s party was today and to my surprise it’s National Cook a Sweet Potato Day. This day is observed annually on February 22nd in the United States. So it seems his request to make this pie was right on time.
Diane’s Ginger Sweet Potato Pie
9 inches Pie Crust:
- 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/2 cup cubed cold unsweetened butter
- Ice water as needed
First, combine the all-purpose flour and salt. Then gradually blend in the butter until the mixture becomes crumbly. Gradually, add in about 3-5 tbsp. of ice water, tossing with a fork until dough holds together when pressed. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator for an 1 hour. Roll out into pie pan and pour in filling when ready.
- 2 pounds of sweet potatoes
- 1/3 cup of unsweetened butter
- 1/2 tbsp. of salt
- 1/2 tbsp. of cinnamon
- 1/2 tbsp. of nutmeg
- 1 tbsp. of ginger
- 1/3 cup of evaporated milk
- 1/4 cup of sweetened condensed milk
- 1/2 cup of brown sugar
I baked my sweet potatoes in a round ceramic pan covered in foil. This allowed for them to cook in their own steam without getting overly dry. I had read that boiling them would make them watery and that was not what I wanted.
Once the potatoes were cooled, I blended in ¼ cup of brown sugar and 1/3 cup of unsweetened butter. I typically bake with brown sugar instead of white sugar because it seems to give baked goods a better consistency. Plus, the molasses in brown sugar adds more richness to the flavor.
Next, I added in 1/3 cup of evaporated milk and ¼ cup of sweetened condensed milk. Most of the recipes I found called for vanilla extract but quality vanilla is at a premium price right now and I just didn’t want to splurge on that ingredient. I’m very thrifty!
I decided to find a substitute that would give the pie a similar flavor. I chose sweetened condensed milk because it would help give the filling a creamy texture and to me the flavor of condensed milk is similar to that of vanilla ice cream. LOL
I also discovered that I didn’t have any eggs in the house when I got ready to bake the pie so, using my knowledge of food chemistry, I had to think of a substitute. I know eggs serve as a thickener in custards, so I asked myself what’s something else that acts as a thickener and doesn’t distort flavor, corn starch! I added 2 tbsps. of corn starch as a thickener to the mix.
Lastly, I added 1/2 tbsp. of salt, 1/2 tbsp. of cinnamon, 1/2 tbsp. of nutmeg, and 3/4 tbsp. of ginger.
I wanted to give my pie a little something extra but not anything that would take it too far from it’s cultural origins or make it too savory. I’m southern after all, our pies are sweet not spicy. Ginger is used a lot in foods from various African peoples and it gave the pie just the right about of pizzazz. With ginger a lot goes a long way so I dare not add too much. 3/4 tbsp. of ginger was just enough even though it was 2 pounds of sweet potato. You can leave the ginger out if you want but I think you’d be missing out.
Once you’ve blended your pie to a smooth, creamy texture, you are free to pour it into your pie shell, and all that’s left to do is to bake at 350° for 20 minutes or until set. Test by poking a knife into the center and if it comes out clean you’re good to go. Let the pie sit and cool for about 35-40 minutes before storing it in the refrigerator.
The filling recipe above yielded lot of left over filling so I decided to use the remaining filling to make us a few pie tarts (3 actually). This gave us an opportunity to enjoy some of the yummy sweet potato pie goodness at home ahead of his party. I am so please at the way this recipe turned out and I am now a sweet potato pie convert. This recipe was delicious and I really hope you try it!
And the pie was a hit with the kids!
Other Variations of Sweet Potato Pie
It’s true that sweet potato pie is made by many peoples and in many different ways. Here are a few other recipes that I came across when doing my research that you might find interesting.
If you try my recipe, please let me know what you thought about it in the comments below. Likewise if you have one of your own that you’d like to share, feel free to post that too. This is National Cook Sweet Potato Pie Day and it’s time to celebrate this wonderful food that represents so much history, love, and pride for us all.