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The Sweetest Potato Pie

16 Mar 2009

written by Carolyn

pie

My mother makes the best sweet potato pies in the world.

This is not my opinion.  It is a statement of fact.  I have never tasted a sweet potato pie better than hers.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  I have spent years tasting other people’s pies, hoping to find one I liked better than my mother’s.  I haven’t found one yet.  If this were blind maternal loyalty, I could laugh it off.  Trust me, it is not.  I would love to prove, if not to her, than to myself, that some people are better at it than she is.  It hasn’t happened yet.

You may think your mother’s, or your grandmother’s, or the recipe that has been passed down in your family for generations, or the pie at your favorite soul food restaurant, is better.  Unfortunately, you are wrong.  My mother’s pie is the best.  Call it pie prejudice, if you will.

I wish I were wrong. 

My mother is the type of old-fashioned cook who uses her eyes and her hands and her taste buds as her only measuring tools.  She has never attempted to write down any of her recipes.  I feel pretty confident that she won’t.  She is now 78 years old, but age isn’t the reason.  She won’t, because I don’t think she’s willing to risk competition in the one area that remains her forte: baking.  My mother is arrogant and egotistical, wrapped in the innocent disguise of a sweet old Christian lady.  Her swagger deserves its own rap metaphor.  She knows what she is good at, and she won’t hesitate to tell you.  She has this uncanny ability to remain completely unselfconscious while describing the paroxysms of joy someone experienced after eating something she cooked.  There is not a bit of bragging.  She is simply stating fact – unarguable, unassailable fact. 

The proof is in the results.  This is a woman who used to make homemade cinnamon rolls and homemade biscuits to serve for breakfast on Christmas Day, on top of the turkey, ham, mustards, collards, chitlins, homemade dinner rolls, and desserts for Christmas dinner.  This is a woman who keeps the Mormons coming to her house long after they’ve realized their attempts to proselytize have fallen on deaf ears, because she makes them homemade cinnamon rolls.  She knows what she’s talking about. 

Over the years she has relinquished bits and pieces of the holiday meals to us children, with good reason. Her once-perfect turkeys are sometimes overcooked and over-salted.  She still seasons her greens with fatback, when we have all moved on to smoked turkey, and beyond.  But her desserts – sweet potato pies, peach cobblers and apple pies, made with fresh, natural ingredients (she still insists on peeling peaches and apples by hand at 78) remain impeccable.  They are completely homemade, from the flaky pie crust that could be a dessert in and of itself, to the perfect combination of tart and sweet found in the cooked fruit filling, always seasoned perfectly with just the right blend of spices, butter and sugar. 

Anybody can cook a turkey.  Not everybody can make a roasting pan full of apple pie so delectable that you’ll eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My mother’s health is an issue that lingers in the background.  Four years ago, my mother had a heart attack shortly after arriving in New York for a visit. Upon learning that Grandma was in the hospital, my daughter’s only reaction was, “Does that mean we’re not getting any pie?”  When Mom was released from the hospital, she sat in my hot kitchen and walked me through the steps of making sweet potato pies so my daughter would not be completely disappointed.  I remember little of what I did. I was like an automaton that afternoon, merely doing what my mom told me to do, panicked that the heat would somehow cause her to have another heart attack, or, worse, stroke out.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I have never been able to replicate what I did that day.  I tried once or twice, to resounding failure.

Last Christmas Mom said she was ready to turn over the reigns of dessert to someone in the family.  We all ignored her.  Without recipes, teaching someone else to make her desserts would literally require an apprenticeship.  Someone would have to watch her make each dessert half a dozen times or more in order to be able to approximate measurements and create a recipe. I said so, and she suggested my eleven-year-old daughter as a possible apprentice.  I chuckled to myself.  We live in New York.  I have a full-time job, and I can’t take a month or more off work so my daughter can watch my mother bake, nor can she afford the time away from school.  And my mother is not leaving Detroit.  As for my daughter, unless the topic is makeup, boys, or actually eating that pie, she has the attention span of a gnat.  We both knew the suggestion was a non-starter, because it hasn’t come up again. 

I don’t think my mother necessarily intends for those desserts to die with her, but she’s sure not going out of her way to keep it from happening. From time to time, my mother makes comments to remind us who is the queen in the kitchen.  During a recent visit, I volunteered to make a stir-fry out of some shrimp I found in her freezer.  My mother came into the kitchen and watched me for about five seconds.  In that time, she determined that I used too much garlic and not enough lemon juice.  At no point did she offer any cooking tips or advice.  She simply announced that she would just set herself a few raw shrimp off to the side to cook later. 

“You’re not even going to taste it?”  I asked.

“You and your kids can eat that,” she said, like “that” was cat food. 

We ate, and I then had to leave, because I was ready to kill her. 

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m probably not going to learn the baking secret from my mother.  One of my sisters says she’s going to work with my mother to learn how to make her pies.  I wish her well.  I hope she doesn’t kill my mother during the apprenticeship.  When my kids ask about pie, if we’re not headed to Grandma’s house that week, I just roll my eyes.  On occasion, though, I’ve tried to figure how to make a sweet potato pie on my own.

I once thought a friend from law school would provide the solution to my pie dilemma.  She had become proficient at making her mother’s sweet potato pie, and offered me the recipe.  She spoke reverently of her mother’s pie, but I was skeptical.  For one thing, she was so blindly loyal to her mother that she would love her mother’s pies even if they were horrible.  For another, I knew she had never had my mother’s pie.  

I mentioned to my mom that this friend constantly bragged about her mother’s pie.

My mother wasn’t fazed.  “Where are her people from?”

“North Carolina,” I answered.

“Hmmm.  People from North Carolina like those yellow pies.” 

And she didn’t need to say anything else.  It had been ingrained in us from birth that yellow sweet potato pies – pies made from just sweet potatoes, butter, sugar and cinnamon — were the pies of the Devil.  Yellow pies were to be avoided at all costs. 

I had no personal knowledge about the pie preferences of people from North Carolina, but my mother was the expert.  She didn’t have to carry the argument to its logical conclusion for me to get the point.  If my friend was bragging about a yellow pie, then she simply had no idea what she was talking about. 

My friend and I had a pie-off.  My friend brought me a pie she made from her mother’s recipe. I did one better, and brought her a pie made by my mother.  Her pie was yellowish-orange, and tasted like sweet potato pudding dusted with powdered cinnamon.  My mother’s pie was a deep reddish-brown, the addition of cloves and allspice to the yellow-orange of the sweet potatoes giving the pie a rich, spicy sweetness. 

The expression on our faces as we tasted each other’s pies was nearly identical:  “Ugh.”  I was disappointed at first.  How could I be friends with someone who actually preferred a yellow pie?  Later, I decided not to be so judgmental.  I was still convinced she was wrong, but concluded it was either ignorance, or regional preference – a Mississippi versus North Carolina thing.  In my heart, though, I felt her blind maternal loyalty had clouded her judgment as to the clear superiority of my mother’s pie over that yellow thing.  In any case, we agreed to disagree.

Last year, I bought sweet potatoes and frozen pie crusts with the intention of trying once again to make sweet potato pies for Christmas.  I didn’t have the courage to go through with it, the holidays came and went, and the sweet potatoes languished in the bottom of my pantry.  Over the next few months, I watched the potatoes sprout and the frozen pie crusts get smushed in my freezer, but I couldn’t muster up the nerve either to toss them in the garbage or to make another pie attempt.

My yellow pie-loving friend happened to be visiting us at the time, and she noticed the sweet potatoes sprouting in the pantry.  “What are you going to do with those potatoes?”

“I was going to try to make one of my mother’s pies, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet,” I said.

“I could make a pie for you,” she offered, and then remembered the pie-off.  “Oh.”

I shrugged.  “I mean, if you wanted to, you could mix the filling up the way you do it, and make a pie for you and your kids, and then I could take the rest and spice it up the way we eat it.” 

I had tried to split the difference, but splitting the difference does not work in pie-making.  She knew what I was saying: no, I don’t want any of that nasty pie you make.  We left the kitchen, pie détente intact.

My friend soon returned to North Carolina, but the potatoes remained in my pantry.  I checked them periodically for rot and was surprised to see that, apart from the eyes growing at one end of one potato, they were in reasonably good shape.  However, the weather was getting warmer, and enough was soon going to be enough.

Finally, on the eve of Easter Sunday, I was inspired.  I inspected the potatoes and the pie crusts again, and decided it was now, or never.  I cut the sprouting end off of one potato, a rotten spot off another, rinsed them, and dropped them into a pot of boiling water.  Then I went on the Internet, searching for a sweet potato pie recipe that used at least one other spice in addition to cinnamon.  I needed a recipe for the basic proportions of sweet potato, egg, milk, butter, sugar and vanilla extract.  I figured I could add the spices by taste, the way my mother did.  I had served as her filling taster for so many years that I knew generally what the filling was supposed to look like – how brown it was supposed to be – and how it was supposed to taste.

I cooked the potatoes until they were soft, and let them drain overnight in a colander.  I didn’t tell the kids what I was up to.  In the morning, I took the broken, frozen pie crusts, a pound of butter, and the brown sugar out of the freezer.  My daughter caught on.

“Mom, are you making a pie?”

“I don’t know.”  I searched for the vanilla extract.

“Are you making sweet potato pie?”

“We’ll see,” was all I would say.

I peeled the potatoes and found a few more questionable spots, which I removed.  The potatoes, though, were pretty intact and had cooked up well.  I put them in a big mixing bowl.

“Well, even if it doesn’t taste like Grandma’s, it has to be better than that one that girl sent to Auntie C’s house last Christmas,” my daughter reasoned, ignoring my pie denials.

I shuddered at the memory of what was truly the world’s nastiest sweet potato pie.  We had spent that past Christmas with my good friend C and her family in Virginia. C’s oldest son had brought a round gray thing in a pie tin to his mom’s house on Christmas Day.  He called it a sweet potato pie and said his girlfriend of the moment had made it for C. C wouldn’t touch it.  “I don’t eat food from people I don’t know.”

“Mom, my girlfriend made it!”

“I’ve never met this woman, and she couldn’t be bothered to bring this to me herself.”

It wasn’t my argument, but I was squarely on C’s side.  I don’t eat food from people I don’t know, either.  I went in and took a look at the pie tin.  “I wouldn’t eat that,” I said in a low voice.  “I can’t think of a single good reason for a sweet potato pie to be gray.”

C’s husband was hearing none of it, and thanked his son for the dessert.  He cut a huge slice and dug into it with gusto.

Ten minutes later, hubby’s slice of pie remained on the table, with only the one forkful missing from the tip.

“How is it?” C asked her husband.

“Taste it.”

“I’m not tasting it!  Carolyn, will you taste it?”

“I don’t eat gray pie,” I said, but I had to admit I was curious to see just how bad it could be.  I cut a thin sliver and tasted the tip of the sliver, which I spat out immediately.   I was right – there was no good reason for a sweet potato pie to be gray, but apparently lots of bad ones.  My daughter tasted it just to throw her opinion into the mix, and after one bite, she loudly proclaimed, “UGH! Mommy, that’s awful!”  No one else dared touch it, not even C’s son.

All of this was going through my mind as I attempted to make my own pie.  I knew mine wouldn’t be gray, but I wasn’t sure of anything else.

The recipe I found was for a single pie made with one sweet potato.  Since I had three potatoes, I tripled the recipe.  I remembered my mother’s trick of using half white sugar and half brown sugar, to keep the pie from being too sweet.  Some things I questioned after it was too late, like the use of three sticks of butter.  Some, like using six eggs instead of only two, seemed like a good way of making sure the filling would hold together when cooked.  And some things, like the amount of milk, I knew I’d have to do by feel.  I ended up using only ¾ of a cup of milk instead of the 1 ½ cups that would have resulted from just tripling all the ingredients.  The recipe didn’t call for a pinch of salt, but I suddenly remembered mixing the filling under my mother’s tutelage, and tossed in a tiny amount.  My mother doesn’t like nutmeg, but I do, and I used nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and cloves.  I was tempted to toss in a tiny bit of ginger, but decided I didn’t want to ruin what was looking like a pretty good thing.  I mixed it all together by hand until it was reasonably smooth, but the color still seemed off.  Without tasting the mix, I added in more spices until the color looked right, then tasted it, and then added in a bit more until it tasted right as well. When I mixed it all together again, I knew I had more filling than I needed for three pie shells.  Nevertheless, I was pretty pleased.

As I mixed the filling, it dawned on me that I was doing what I had seen my mother do, after all – making adjustments on the fly, relying on my sight, memory and taste buds – but I still didn’t know if the pie was going to taste good.  I let the frozen pie shells thaw enough to pinch the dough back together into a reasonable facsimile of a crust, brushed the shells with a bit of butter, and filled them.

My daughter and son both came around to observe the proceedings.  “That looks good, Mommy,” my daughter said.  “Can I taste?”

My first instinct was to say no, but I hesitated.  Instead, I got a clean teaspoon and dipped it into the filling.  “Here,” I said, giving her the spoon.

Her eyes widened.  “Mom, this tastes like Grandma’s!”

I shook my head.  “Not quite, because Grandma doesn’t like nutmeg in her pie, and I do.  But not bad.”  I finished filling the shells, and put two in the oven.

The pies cooked up nicely, with a firm filling and a golden crust.  They were neither yellow nor gray, but a rich russet brown.  I saw a hint of sheen on the top and nodded to myself.  Next time, only use two sticks of butter, I thought.  We enjoyed the pie after Easter dinner, and I had to believe the kids when they said that, after Grandma’s, it was the best sweet potato pie they’d ever had.  I was satisfied with that, and considered it high praise.  Unlike my mother, I don’t mind being number two sometimes.


5 Comments on The Sweetest Potato Pie

  1. Grandma

    Split each sweet potato lengthwise, cross cuts on the surface of each sweet potato. Grandma

  2. watcat

    Hi this blog is great I will be recommending it to friends.

  3. Jome

    …Can you make me some pie?


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