The secret to making a sweet potato pie that lives up to your aunt’s

I couldn’t tell you the first time I had sweet potato pie. I wish I could, but it’s a dish so inextricably tied to my childhood, to family holidays, to my culture as an African-American, that it’s hard to tease out one specific memory.

I didn’t start cooking or baking until I was in high school. As a latchkey kid, I vaguely remember making spaghetti; my grandmother teaching me how to make a plain cake from scratch will stay with me long after she passes away. The magic of sweet potato pie, however — its flavors, the special things that go into it — was completely lost on me.

How? How does this heavenly wonder come together?

When I was growing up, my Aunt Lisa — my mother’s younger sister — was the one who made the sweet potato pie. For Christmas. For Thanksgiving. For any special occasion that required a family get-together. That’s how it works in my family. Every adult person (who can cook — no shade) brings the one or two dishes at which they excel — enough for a group — and we come together and share: a potluck. It’s much more economical that way, as a family that is generationally poor. But it’s also how we create memories, share love and, of course, tease one another when things don’t come out quite right. Most of us have been on the receiving end of that at some point, but we always give props when they’re due. They usually are.

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But my Aunt Lisa is, probably inarguably, the best of us. And not just with sweet potato pie. When she headed south to North Carolina, where my family is originally from, with my grandmother about a decade ago, no lie, I think we all were a bit concerned. You may chuckle, but there are dishes she made that we no longer see at the table because she no longer lives here in New York.

During my high school years, my mom taught me the basics of sweet potato pie, using canned sweet potatoes. It was nice to finally have an understanding of the foundation. Once my aunt left New York a few years later, someone had to take over, as sweet potato pie is a staple dessert dish. I can’t remember for sure, but I think we just went without it for a few years — what a wasteland. My brain has probably buried those memories to protect me.

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But once I got to a certain age, it was time for me to join the fold of adults who bring dishes to family functions. What was I going to contribute to the table? Oh, I know! Sweet potato pie!

I still don’t know what the hell I was thinking.

The first time I was set to make it, naturally folks were concerned. We’re always concerned when someone decides to try a new dish or someone new starts cooking. This is serious business for us. “Make sure you put your whole foot in it. Concentrate!” my cousin Kelly told me.

I tried, truly. And really, it wasn’t that bad. But it wasn’t Aunt Lisa-level. Nowhere near it. Those are, to this day, some big shoes to fill.

My other cousin, Lisa’s only daughter, remarked that it tasted funny. I can’t recall if she said soap or mouthwash or what, but it was something that definitely doesn’t belong in any kind of pie.

For all the teasing we may do, though, second chances are certainly allowed. So I kept trying. I continued to use canned potatoes, as my mother taught me. It’s usually cheaper, at least where we live, but most family members will argue you down that sweet potato pie tastes much better when made with fresh sweet potatoes. My mom told me she doesn’t really see a difference. (I do.)

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One year, my Aunt Kim and I did our holiday grocery shopping really late. Never wait until the last minute to get your ingredients, folks.

I make sweet potato pie, sometimes cake; she makes candied yams and string beans. We both used canned sweet potatoes at the time. By the time we got to the grocery store, though, there were no cans left. The horror! What a nightmare!

We had a choice (which really wasn’t much of a choice): We could either forgo making our dishes, or try our hands at cooking with fresh sweet potatoes. I was mortified, personally, but we went with the fresh.

I’m pretty sure I took the potatoes home and just stared at them for a while. They challenged me with their fresh, orange-y goodness. I could only pray that this process would come naturally.

I used way too many potatoes and probably a bit too much sugar, but nonetheless it was a success! Except in a pinch, I haven’t gone back to canned sweet potatoes since.

June is National Soul Food Month. Soul food is an integral part of my ethnic culture and is intricately connected to our history in this country, our language and even our music and art. There is literally a film called Soul Food (and a Showtime series based on this film).

I knew that I wanted to take the time to reflect on its influence in my life, but I wasn’t sure how. When I first began learning about its history a few years ago, I realized just how disconnected I was — we are — from its importance in this country’s cultural development and from our deep roots still connected to the African continent. There is so much richness that we’ve lost to the sands of time, to deliberate erasure and to years of subjugation and oppression. Having even a fraction of that returned to me has been life-giving.

Most of the time when I’m cooking — sometimes soul food dishes, sometimes other cuisines — I’m not really thinking about anything other than making good food that nourishes, physically and emotionally. When holidays or other special occasions come around, I’m not thinking about anything except making sure I concentrate so that my pies live up to Kelly’s standards. But occasionally I think about how much (soul) food, and its ability to bring us together, has been the glue that helps keep my family intact.

And I quietly thank my God and my ancestors. We are still here.


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