Why Sweet Potato Pie Is The Defining Dessert of the South
“Sweet potatoes are just a part of Southern day to day. It's in our DNA.”
Growing up in a small rural town outside of Augusta, Georgia, Southern cooking has always been an integral part of my life. As I thought about the countless times I’d watch my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother zip around in their kitchens preparing meals for the day, I realized my favorite memories involve the days where dessert was the main attraction.
My grandmother worked as a baker for several years before retiring so I always considered the gift of pastry-making as part of my DNA. As I type this, she is probably whipping up a batch of red velvet cupcakes to send me. But every year during the holidays, her kitchen is where the magic happens and although family gatherings look vastly different this year, I find that food still connects us from miles away.
The South is attributed with warming hospitality, soul food, and an influential music scene, but for those who grew up there, each of these aspects resonates on a deeper level. Sweet potato pie encompasses all three, as it’s a dessert that’s present during times of joy and even grief as comfort food. No conversation involving African American foodways is complete without the mention of it as it’s a delicate, traditional dessert with a history built on resilience and unrecorded recipes that stood solid through generations.
Few relatives in my family are trusted to make it due to its delicate nature and those who are capable don't mind sharing it with those they cherish most, like many grandmas, great-grandmas, and even great-great-grandmas. Whether the comfort from the pie stems from memories of making it with a relative or just eating it with them during the holidays, it’s rare to meet someone from the South who doesn’t have at least one story to tell about it.
While sweet potato pie often ruled the dinner table during Sunday dinners, holidays and other special occasions, one dessert that seldom, if ever, made the cut was pumpkin pie. What most consider the dessert of Thanksgiving, I didn’t have until I was well into my teenage years and even then, it wasn’t made by any of my Southern relatives.
"I just think there's a love for sweet potatoes in general in the South."
Jocelyn Delk Adams, founder of Grandbaby Cakes, a brand which pays homage to her Mississippi grandmother’s recipes and cooking, shares the same lack of pumpkin pie experiences I did.
“I just think there's a love for sweet potatoes in general in the South. Because if you think about Southern Thanksgivings, we have candied sweet potatoes. There's sweet potatoes in so many aspects of the savory and the sweet,” Adams said. “I never knew about pumpkin. I know that that's the thing everywhere else. I had never tasted or even had anything remotely pumpkin flavored until I was 26 or 27. I just was never raised on it. Sweet potatoes are just a part of Southern day to day. It's in our DNA. We have our sweet potato dishes and our desserts, and that's just how it is.”
My first experience with sweet potato pie started with helping my late great grandmother -- more affectionately called “Big Ma” -- make them in her kitchen when she would watch me while my mother and grandmother were at work. As a curious assistant, I would stare intently as she boiled and peeled the potatoes, mixed them until they were smooth and velvety, and finally poured them into pie crusts with the rest of the ingredients before baking.
Although I was a pretty quiet kid, she would explain each step of the baking process to me and was careful not to let me get too close to the oven. I recall her telling me the most important part of making a sweet potato pie was picking out the right sweet potatoes -- you don’t want them to be too big or too small, otherwise your filling will be too much or not enough for the crust.
To understand why the pie is so unique to the South, we first have to look at where its starchy root vegetable base came from. Sweet potatoes, which are often confused with yams native to West Africa, are relatively inexpensive and have a winding history, as researchers believe they’re native to tropical South America, and began to migrate west to reach Europe and the southern region of what we know as the U.S. in the early 16th century as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Since they fare healthier in warmer temperatures, there was a rise in popularity of them being grown in southern states like Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi.
James Beard award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles, who was born in Texas and raised in Bessemer, Alabama was recognized in 2018 for her recipe for sweet potato pie, which includes a made-from-scratch pie crust and a dollop of bourbon chantilly cream. Miles currently serves as the executive pastry chef at Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega and Chez Fonfon in Birmingham and connects sweet potato pie with her memories of cooking with her family.
“She's gone to be with the Lord and it just brings back memories of how she really didn't make her pie crust, she used to buy it at the grocery store,” Miles said of her mom who grew sweet potatoes in her garden when she was younger. “She would make about five or six pies during the holidays. It just brings her back to me and I thought about her a lot during Thanksgiving, although I didn't make a sweet potato pie.”
Aside from Thanksgiving and Christmas, my Big Ma’s pies often made an appearance in the trunks and freezers of various relatives and family friends throughout the year, much like Miles’ aunt’s pies.
“My aunt used to make desserts for people and she would make more of those than anything else, sweet potato pie. I mean, it was like a staple,” Miles said. “All my friends, you go to anybody's house, they would have a sweet potato pie. It was just something we had all the time.”
Recreating the generational recipes for many dishes made by older Black relatives though, including sweet potato pie, can be a bit difficult during the first couple of tries because written recipes are rare. When my Big Ma would explain her baking process to me, she never had a pen or paper. All of the steps seemed to be permanently imprinted in her memory and she didn’t miss a beat when she’d recite them. As Adams described her grandmother’s approach to cooking, I found that this practice of doing everything from memory and sight seemed to be universal, at least where Southern grandmas were concerned.
Adams, who developed a sweet potato pecan pie recipe inspired by her grandmother’s (who she also calls Big Ma) original sweet potato pie, explained how her grandmother never followed a recipe when making the pie, instead tasting everything along the way until the flavors and textures were what she wanted them to be.
“The filling for the sweet potato pecan pie is very much how my grandmother made it. Sometimes she would just throw a stick of butter in there. I would just be watching her, and she'd just throw a stick of butter in and start pouring in some sugar,” she added. “Everything was very instinctual, and she’d just start beating it up with the whisk until she got it to the consistency, smoothness, and flavor that she wanted.”
But even though these verbal recipes take a little more attention and confidence, the passing down of them, especially in African-American families, simultaneously holds weight and provides relief.
“These recipes represent a significant piece of how we got through things and how we survived. Those recipes built our families up and they represent such incredible times for our families, and even sometimes terrible times, but they’re a way for us to navigate through those times,” Adams said. “I think that the recipes just take on a life of their own and they become really crucial to how a family thrives and continues to thrive, and how you continue to honor your past and your ancestors.”