The news item remains poignant and strange. On May 25, 1882, the Peninsula Enterprise reported, “At the Alms House on last Saturday night thieves entered the smoke-house on the premises, by undermining the foundation, and carried off all the meat, four pies in number, deposited there for the use of the poor of that institution.” Tunneling under a foundation to purloin pies and bacon seems like a lot of effort to devote to culinary skullduggery. But, there you have it. The impoverished poorhouse residents deprived of pies provided by a caring community. I’d like to think that sweet potato pies were the object of such villainy.
Laura Dennis recalled the family pie business in the town of Cape Charles during the Great Depression: “Mother was most famous for her pies. She had the best recipe for piecrust, and it was just as flaky, never soggy. She made lemon and coconut pie. Butterscotch, cherry, apple, mincemeat, pumpkin, sweet potato.” As a little girl of nine or ten, it was Laura’s job to deliver those pies to customers in the community, “They would order the cakes and the pies and the rolls. She would take orders during the week. And, we would deliver the goods, and we had a little wagon that my uncle fixed. It had a little cage on it with two shelves and we put the pies in there and pulled the wagon around and deliver. And that’s how she made her living.” The one pie Laura Dennis never made, though, was a Hayman sweet potato pie, inscribed in a recipe in her collection with the caution “Will be slightly greenish in color, and very, very rich.” I’ve baked and eaten this sweet potato pie and it is both slightly green and exceedingly rich.
“White Hayman Sweet Potato Pie”
3 cups cooked white Hayman sweet potatoes
1 stick butter
1 pinch nutmeg
1 1/3 cup sugar
4 eggs beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1 (13 oz) can evaporated milk
1 unbaked pie shell, large, or 2 small
Combine potatoes, butter, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Combine beaten eggs and milk; mix with potato mixture until blended. Pour into pie shell or shells. Bake at 350º for 1 hour or until knife inserted comes out clean. May take 20 minutes longer in large pie.
Gloria Harmon, married to William Harmon whose family has cultivated Hayman sweets for generations, makes a different sweet potato pie, a confection that draws its accent from the lemon juice she adds.
“Sweet Potato Pie”
2 X-large eggs
2 Cup sugar
1 Stick butter
3 Cup cook[ed] potatoes
½ Cup whole milk
1 Cup canned milk
2 Tbsp vanilla
2 Tbsp lemon
½ Tsp salt
Mix ingredients together. Bake at 375º. Use unbaked pie shell.
Ms. Harmon’s instructions are simple enough. Collect the ingredients, blend them thoroughly, pour the filling mixture into the piecrust, and bake and until the pie is done. There are no steps but these; there are no intervals but those defined by practice. I’ve made this pie according to these exact specifications and in doing so discovered the pie as the craft produced from a deeply naturalized and unstated reservoir of knowledge achieved through practice and the most literal acts of consumption. At heart, the sweet potato pie is an idea encountered on a plate.
“Cook” Sara Ross of Accomac kept her recipes in a blue cookie tin that held two small file boxes and a handful of loose papers. Her handwritten recipe consists only of a list of ingredients with no instructions for a crust and no directions for mixing and baking the filling. Cook Ross presumed that if you were going to make something as familiar as a sweet potato pie you shared the common knowledge (the lingua franca of pie) central to the enterprise. The enumeration of ingredients told the experienced baker of sweet potato pies all they needed to know. Her ingredients, consistent with those listed for other sweet potato pie recipes, vary in proportion from those of Gloria Harmon and Laura Dennis, but the alchemy of evaporated milk, sweet potatoes, butter, eggs, spice, and sugar is much the same.
“Sweet Potato Pie”
2 cups potato
1 large can milk
1 ½ cup sugar
1 stick melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cook Ross also collected recipes, some sent by friends, others shared by neighbors, and many clipped from newspapers, magazines, and promotional literature exemplified by the trade brochure “Nema Gold Sweet Potatoes from Virginia’s Eastern Shore” prepared by the Accomack and Northampton County Farm Bureaus (n.d.). The sweet potato pie recipe was surely the product of a rural affairs test kitchen.
“Nema Gold Sweet Potato Pie”
1 ½ cups boiled sweet potatoes (mashed)
1 cup milk
1 ½ cups sugar
3 eggs (separate)
4 tablespoons butter
Pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice and few drops of vanilla
Put sweet potatoes through sieve. Add butter, sugar, egg yolks, salt and flavoring. Add milk and mix. Fold in egg whites. Bake about 20 minutes at 425º. Reduce temperature to 300º and finish baking. About 45 to 50 minutes total baking time is required. Makes 1 large pie.
The contrast between the collected recipe and the handwritten list of ingredients is dramatic. The published recipe is “busy,” requiring the separation of the eggs and the temperature adjustments. It’s a program for prescribed action. More to the point, this recipe takes pains to communicate the fact that the sweet potatoes should be boiled before making the pie. I never boil the potatoes, but roast them instead. Roasting concentrates and preserves flavor; boiling diminishes the sweet potato, robbing it of its distinctive richness. Becky taught me this – and she possesses a lifetime of sweet potato pie expertise.
All of these pie recipes (and there are many, many more in my field notes) set me to thinking about their origins. After all, evaporated milk, central to many recipes, is a comparatively recent invention that did not begin to gain market traction until the canning process was perfected in the 1890s. The rest of it, though, is pretty straightforward. It doesn’t require a eureka revelation to realize that the sweet potato pie is essentially a pudding – and that it can be baked without a crust and served in slices. A “Sweet Potato Pudding” recipe from Marion Cabell Tyree’s 1879 Housekeeping in Old Virginia foretells Gloria Harmon’s recipe: “Boil one and a half pounds potatoes very tender. Add half a pound of butter, and rub both together through a sieve. Then add a small cupful of milk, six eggs, one and a half cupful sugar. Beat all together and add a little salt, the juice and rind of a lemon. Then beat again, and prepare pastry. Bake twenty minutes. It may be baked without pastry. Irish potato pudding may be made by the same recipe.”
My friend Dave Shields freely shares his thoughts on sweet potato history, varieties, and recipes, tapping into the rich agricultural and culinary histories of the 1800s. Sweet potatoes (not to be confused with true yams) are native to the Americas and were quickly adapted into New World European and African cuisines. The pudding was a European notion that covered a centuries old universe of thoroughly blended dishes, sweet and savory. Think blood sausage; think liver pudding! The nutmeg that commonly flavors sweet potato pies, Dave adds, firmly establishes that Old World pudding genealogy. There are other sweet potato confections, some, the pone and the soufflé for instance, cousins to the sweet potato pie. Then there are biscuits, breads, and sweet potatoes baked in the skin.
Sweet potatoes in the land of Gloria and William Harmon, Laura Dennis, Cook Ross, and just about everyone else I know are a staple. When I go to the Exmore Diner for spot, toads, or drum, I always order greens and a baked sweet potato on the side. When I chat with folks about Eastern Shore of Virginia dishes like salted black duck, oyster cakes, and clam fritters, they invariably sigh with longing and then rhetorically fortify the plates of recollection and imagination with sweet potatoes. Brick-lined pits under the floorboards in front of the hearth in old houses were sweet potato drop-ins. And, then there were the specialized sweet potato houses (wonderfully documented by Judi Quinn) designed for storage, curing, and propagation. Sweet potatoes, where I come from, are iconic and the sweet potato pie is their perfection and my redemption.
I just know those pies pilfered from the poor of Accomack County so long ago were sweet potato pies – a conclusion that renders their theft understandable and unpardonable. In a truly just America, everybody gets a slice of the sweet potato pie.