Who doesn’t love (or at least know someone who loves) biting into a forkful of sweet potato pie? The creamy mash, the decadent crust — few dishes are more integral to households across the country this time of year. Sure, the big bird typically gets the spotlight. But sweet potato pie is another dish that has stood as an American classic that spans regional differences, political divides, and generations.
Particularly beloved in Black and Southern households, this traditional delicacy has a rich history that travels from the forests of Peru to kitchens of the antebellum era. This dish is so rife with nostalgia that the popularity of sweet potato pie rivals even that of its autumnal rival, pumpkin pie!
So how did we get here? Let’s dig in.
As with many other things in this country’s culinary history, it turns out that slavery was at the core of sweet potato’s introduction.
The rivalry between pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie began with regional differences. After its arrival to North America and Europe via the transatlantic slave trade, the sweet potato thrived in the Southern states due to the plant’s predisposition for growing in warmer climates.
According to food historian Adrian Miller, Spanish traders began their voyage to Peru and introduced the vegetable worldwide.
Western Europeans were used to putting sweet fruits as well as savory vegetables in their baked goods and were astounded by this newfound crop. Britons, in particular, are recorded in cookbooks such as The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy putting sweet potatoes and pumpkins (among other delectable vegetables) into tarts, pastries, and puddings as early as 1747.
Eventually, wealthy Americans got wind of the new culinary fad from across the ocean and wanted in, including Southern homeowners with plantations. Cooking was a task delegated to enslaved African Americans, and thus their knowledge of the sweet potato began to develop.
Conversely, the pumpkin took favor in the Northern states and, due to its profitable yield in autumn, became widely associated with Thanksgiving by the late 19th century.
Before there was the sweet potato pie we know today, there was pone. Despite the elaborate baking rituals and concoctions being requested by their masters, enslaved African Americans created their own crustless sweet potato dessert involving molasses and spices. Without access to cooking equipment and flour for themselves, these enslaved cooks made sustenance out of what they had and cooked it in a hearth, eating sweet potatoes roasted by the fire or mashed and mixed with spices.
According to Miller, “the annual ritual of eating sweet potato pie is a nod to an updated culinary tradition. Once African American cooks got regular access to stoves, a true sweet potato pie became more commonplace on dessert tables.”
Are candied yams different from sweet potatoes?
For many African Americans, sweet potatoes hold a story of resilience and culinary mastery. Sweet potato casserole and candied yams are caramelized iterations of the tuber that all hearken back to antebellum years. Not to be confused with the tropical root plant hailing from Africa, candied yams are not actually made from yams.
As mentioned earlier, Spanish traders brought sweet potatoes worldwide in the 1600s, including to West Africa. West Africans were accustomed to the textures and flavors of their native root tubers, such as the starchy yam and cassava, and did not take to the sweet potato when it was first introduced.
Michael Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene, parses out the difference between yam and sweet potato, explaining, “‘Yam’ is definitely a term from Western Africa, where in several West Atlantic languages it refers to the verb ‘nyam,’ ‘to eat.’ In Wolof, sweet cassava, which looks more like sweet potatoes than authentic yams, is called ‘nyam-bi,’ or ‘the thing that you eat.’”
Over time, enslaved Black Americans began to use the words “yam” and “sweet potato” interchangeably, as the sweet potato was the closest thing they could get to a yam so far away from home. After the Great Migration, many Black Americans who fled the South came from an agricultural background and carried on their culinary traditions in the North and Midwest. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sweet potato pie is one tradition that lives on decades later to be passed on from generation to generation. Miller explains, “Sweet potato pie has been such a mainstay at African American celebrations that the nostalgia factor is huge. A great sweet potato pie reminds one of a beloved cook, family gatherings, and community events.”
If you see a sweet potato pie included in your holiday spread this year, thank the chef for keeping history alive — and enjoy.