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A Sweet Potato Tradition

Desiree Cooper

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(Courtesy Desiree Cooper)
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I can't wait to get to Detroit for the holidays, and get some good ol' home cooking. The problem is, I've got to cook our holiday meal this year. Even with my daughter's help, I'm running out of time. So, I'm thinking, I might cheat and buy my pies. But unless I want to be a laughing stock, those pies had better be good. Which means a taste test.

At the store, the clerk shows me a peach praline pie, a Dutch apple, blackberry, caramel apple walnut, a four-berry pie, a natural apple and a pumpkin custard pie.

"I'm looking for traditional holiday pie, like sweet potato pie," I tell her.

They didn't have those out yet, she said. I could talk to the chef and special order them. A manager stepped in to help.

"That's all I ever have at the holidays is sweet potato pie," I said.

"Yeah, but you're from Virginia," the Manager pointed out. "It's traditional [but] not up here. It's different up here."

"We get very few calls for them," he said. "But we do have them, and the chef does make them."

Well, that was news to me. I'm 47 years old. I've lived everywhere from Japan to New Mexico. And there's one thing I know:
African-Americans everywhere eat sweet potato pie. And to suggest that it's the same as pumpkin pie is downright offensive. We don't do pumpkins. Even if there's not much else to eat.

For nearly 10 years, our family has spent Thanksgiving morning serving a sit-down, holiday meal for the homeless in Detroit. Two-hundred and fifty people--some families, some disabled, some senior citizens, mostly all African-American. Every year, they're full of the holiday spirit and thankful for a good meal.

Last year, I offered some pumpkin pie to the diners.

"We black, we don't eat pumpkin pie," one man said.

"Excuse me?"

"I'm just trying to keep it real. If it ain't sweet potato. We in the South. Too many black brothers, you gonna find we don't eat sweet pumpkin pie."

"So do you think it's a Southern thing or a black thing?" I ask.

"Black thing."

"You know, our black race eats a lot of things, and we touch and dab on a lot of things," another man chimes in.

"So you're not going to dab on the pumpkin pie?"

"No," he says. "We're not going to play with the pumpkin pie. That's really not our forte."

He may be right. Dr. Jessica Harris has written eight books about food and foodways throughout the African Diaspora. She said that especially in West Africa, the yam, which in Africa is more akin to the starchy Idaho potato, had a spiritual relevance.

"New yams are grown from old yam sprouts," Dr. Harris said. "So that in many cultures they become the symbol of death and rebirth."

When enslaved Africans arrived in what's now the United States, they were separated from all they held sacred, including the yam.

"If you think of it, among the Gullah of the sea islands--the sea coasts of Georgia and South Carolina--to eat is 'nyam.' Nyam, as in yam. So we have this thing that was so important, that's suddenly gone missing. That's replaced by this new world thing, the sweet potato that then takes on that importance."

The sweet potato became not only a connection to the past, but a means of survival.

Dr. Harris mentioned how the slaves would roast them in the ashes, relishing their sweetness. As she talked I could imagine my mother hundreds of years later, roasting sweet potatoes in her oven, their dark syrup sticking to the pan.

So I get why African-Americans may prefer sweet potato pie.
But why are they so adamant in their refusal to eat pumpkin pie?

According to Harris, "Pumpkin is sacred to Oshun, and people don't cut pumpkins, because it's like wounding something that is sacred in another kind of way. And that may be part of why we don't eat pumpkin. I don't know."

I stood in the store confused and yam-less. I only had a few more baking days until Christmas. I needed a pie. So I took a chance, and decided to try the pumpkin.

"Hey. Did you get the sweet potato pie?" my daughter asked.

"Um, they didn't have a sweet potato, so I got a pumpkin."

"I'm telling you mom, I'm not going to eat that stuff."

"I can order a sweet potato, but they didn't have one, so let's just try this and we'll see how it tastes."

"No thanks. You and dad can have whatever you want to."

"Taste it. C'mon go get a plate. Let's get a plate."

"No thank you."


"Can I sniff it first?"

"It's not that bad. It's very close. I'm surprised. But, still, I think I'll be shopping for sweet potatoes tomorrow."

"I've never been so happy to hear you say that!"


Desiree Cooper's Southern Sweet Potato Pie:

2 medium sweet potatoes (about 3 cups)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 stick butter (4 oz.), softened and cut into pieces
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup canned sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 (9 in.) unbaked piecrust

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Boil or roast sweet potatoes until you can stick a fork through them. Drain water and cool potatoes just enough to be able to remove the skin. While they're hot, cut potatoes in diagonal slices (to prevent stringiness). Mash and add butter until melted in, then add all the rest of the ingredients. Beat with a mixer until well blended. Batter may be a bit lumpy. Pour into the piecrust and bake on the middle rack for 50 minutes until it browns and the center is stiff.


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