RECIPE

Thanks, Patti Labelle: Sweet potato pie will always beat pumpkin in my household

The spicy, earthy flavor combination of sweet potato pie has profound meaning and roots in Black American culture

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published November 22, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Patti LaBelle and sweet potato pie (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Patti LaBelle and sweet potato pie (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Cold weather's return brings with it the memory of sweet potatoes roasting, a perfume that was a constant in my childhood home owing to my mother's love of those roasted tubers. Whenever we had them in the house, she'd always have one or two in the oven sitting cold and soft in their skins, waiting to be reheated as a side for whatever she was having.  

Mom would consume them unadulterated, and with anything one could imagine, a treat carried over from her childhood reminiscence that she didn't force on her children. The rest of us viewed sweet potatoes as a holiday food – roasted, yes, but also bathed in brandy, lemon, sugar, and spices.

The flavor in each silky triangle . . . pretty much ruined pumpkin pies for me.

The real sweet potato scores were the pies obtained from some other skilled baker. Mom was a champion fruit piemaker – her apple was legendary, but her blueberry, cherry, and peach pies also achieved nirvana in a flawlessly flaky crust.  

But to her sweet potatoes were part of the meal, not a dessert. That left me to slake my pie lust whenever one turned up at church potlucks or extended family gatherings. The flavor in each silky triangle programmed my palate to delight in the silky combination of spices, citrus, and the earthy, balanced sweetness of the main ingredient. And that pretty much ruined pumpkin pies for me.

The sweet potato is the custard-like ingredient of choice in many Black households on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any occasion where pie for dessert is welcome and fitting, a tradition with profound meaning and roots in Black American culture.

In the early 1900s, civil rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune sold sweet potato pies to fund her Florida school for Black children, the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. More than a century later the dessert is still associated with community building and activism, demonstrated through the Minnesota-based Sweet Potato Comfort Pie, which has delivered pies to communities affected by mass shootings and other sorrows.

"Pie to me, is a delicious way of nurturing the human spirit," says the organization's founder Rose McGee, who was raised in rural Tennessee and calls sweet potato pie "the sacred dessert of Black people."

Searching history would lead one to assume that preference is rooted in West African culinary traditions, where yams, cassava and plantains were a staple food. In reality, like white potatoes, these crops are indigenous to the Americas, likely originating in Peru before traveling to Europe, where chefs to the upper classes likely were the first to adapt them for confectionery uses.

The West African cooks brought to this continent as enslaved people, meanwhile, were said to have been unimpressed by the root vegetable, dismissing it as "the white man's yam." There's a reason for that: white plantation owners were prone to imitating European society and likely required their chefs to transform sweet potatoes, which grow easily in the South, into desserts.

Hence, the sweet potato/pumpkin pie divide is likely related to where you and your ancestors were raised. If your family hails from the South one or two generations back, you're probably a sweet potato pie stan. Northerners made do with pumpkins.

On his website Dr. Frederick Opie, Babson College professor of history and foodways, cites the observations of New York Amsterdam News food writer on Ann Schuyler on the matter of the sweet potato's dominance in Southern culture:

If your family hails from the South one or two generations back, you're probably a sweet potato pie stan. Northerners made do with pumpkins.

"Below the Mason-Dixon line . . . We don't have just one of two ways of cooking succulent sweet potatoes," Schuyler wrote. "We used them candied and delicate soufflés that quiver as they come to the table, combined with apples, and in pies that for sheer flavor leave the pumpkin pie of New Englanders in the background."

Then again, Patti LaBelle likely obliterated all border-based traditions once she started selling her pies at Walmart.

If you recall, about seven years ago LaBelle's pie went viral thanks to YouTube influencer James Wright Chanel singing (the hell out of) her praises while devouring a slice of her pie. At that point the soul diva's cooking skills were already amply established and published; Wright's 2017 video review came out seven months after the release of her second cookbook, "Desserts LaBelle: Soulful Sweets to Sing About," which includes an updated version of the recipe.

Wright's melodious wail of approval sent Thanksgiving shoppers to stores and as a result, they're now a holiday institution, eliminating the need for anyone to subject themselves to gourd-derived blandness.

It could very well be the case that I have never had an exceptional pumpkin pie. Most of the ones I've eaten come from the grocery store or a friend who simply emptied some filling into a store-bought pastry into a can – which is understandable! Processing fresh pumpkin flesh seems like a whole deal.


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Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, slip their skins easily when boiled, and prepare as simply in the microwave.  They're also naturally sweeter, with a sugar content that plays better with nutmeg and cinnamon and requires fewer additives to yield flavor that satisfies.

Provided you don't make your holiday desserts, or you don't know anyone, preferably a church lady, who will bake one for you, Miss Patti's pies are a blessing and a slice of heaven, with a mousse-like mouthfeel and an even balance of spice and sweet potato flavoring.

But if you want to make it yourself, the recipe is easy to follow and even simpler if you decide to use a store-bought crust to save time. I know, yes, Miss Patti would not be proud of that suggestion. Of course homemade crust tastes better, especially if you use shortening for extra flakiness.

It's also Thanksgiving, and nobody's going to penalize you for saving time and energy by using a crust from a box. (We recommend Trader Joe's version for their homemade taste.)

We're listing the version in LaBelle's 1999 cookbook that she credits to her best friend Norma Gordon Harris. We love it for the brown sugar base that prevents the filling from making the crust soggy while adding a touch of caramelized goodness.  

Once you taste it, you may never again settle for a dreary pumpkin tart.

* * *

Adapted from "LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About" 

Norma's Black-Bottom Sweet Potato Pie
Yields
8-10 servings
Prep Time
 45 minutes to 1 hour
Cook Time
Between1 hour and 90 minutes

 

Ingredients

1 ready-to bake pie crust (homemade or store bought)

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar,

For the filling:

3 well-scrubbed large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

1/4 cup half-and-half

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Directions

  1. Preheat your over to 400 degrees
  2. Par-bake the pie crust: Brush the inside with 1 tablespoon of melted butter, then sprinkle the 1/4 cup of brown sugar over the bottom. Bake just until the crust starts to brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.
  3. To make the filling: Pierce each sweet potato several times with a fork. Then place them in your microwave in a spoke pattern and cook them on high, turning the sweet potatoes over after 4 minutes. Check them at eight minutes to for tenderness. Cooking shouldn't take more than 10 minutes total. Let them cook until you can handle them. Or you can do the old-school method and boil them from 30 to 45 minutes.
  4. Split each microwaved sweet potato in half and spoon the flesh into a medium to large mixing bowl. Or, if using the boiling method, wait until they're cool enough to handle and slide the skins off using your hands and discard.
  5. Use a hand-held electric mixer to blend the potatoes until creamy and smooth. As an optional step, you can press the creamed potatoes through a sieve to eliminate the fibrous threads. Measure out 3 cups of the potatoes, and save the rest for another use.
  6. Add the 7 tablespoons of melted butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs, half-and-half, cinnamon and nutmeg to 3 cups of the pureed sweet potatoes, and beat with the hand mixer until completely blended. Pour this filling into the par-baked pie shell, using a spatula to smooth the surface until even.
  7. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees, and bake for between 1 hour and 90 minutes.You'll know that the pie is done when the center has a slight jiggle and a knife inserted near the outer rim comes out clean.
  8. Let the pie rest a room temperature for at least two hours, then cover loosely with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate for up to 24 hours until it's time to serve. Makes one 9-inch pie.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland


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