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Curatives | Chowder | Sweet Potato Pie | Angel Cake

Sweet Potato Pie

Two pounds of potatoes will make two pies. Boil the potatoes soft; peel and mash fine through a colander while hot; one tablespoonful of butter to be mashed in with the potato. Take five eggs and beat the yelks [yolks] and whites separate and add one gill [one half cup] of milk; sweeten to taste; squeeze the juice of one orange, and grate one half of the peel into the liquid. One half teaspoonful of salt in the potatoes. Have only one crust and that at the bottom of the plate. Bake quickly.

-- ABBY FISHER, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking, 1881

Blacks in America adopted the sweet potato. They praised it, raised it up, and transformed its sweet orange self into beautiful dishes, no doubt, because it reminded them of the yam--a tuberous starchy vegetable that is a staple in Africa. In their affection for the sweet potato, they even sometimes called it a yam--though it is not.

This is a lovely recipe that still works beautifully today. It easily adapts to the modern kitchen, but we will get to that a moment. First: a few things about Abby.

Abby Fisher was a former slave and the first we know to have written a cookbook. Considering the legacy of blacks and southern cooking in this country, her book is nothing short of a momentous work of American literature, women's history, and the African-American experience.

In addition to being an elegant, highly skilled cook, Abby was one of those people whose life was caught amidst a dizzying array of monumental historic forces. She was born in South Carolina during the 1830s. Judging from the European quality of her recipes, she most likely cooked in the big house of the master, perhaps one of those baronial plantation homes owned by French Huguenots not far from Charleston where fine cooking and opulence reigned.

In 1870, we know she was in Mobile, Alabama, with her husband. Having survived slavery and the Civil War, she and her family then set out for the West in search of a better life. Somehow they survived the immense trials of overland migration--including a pit stop in Missouri where Abby gave birth. In California, she and her husband set up a pickle-and- preserve business, inspired in no small part by Abby's talents and skills. There, Abby reached some social fame, winning awards for her cooking and the esteem of several white ladies who helped her publish this cookbook, though she could not read or write sufficiently to do it herself. What an extraordinary life--from plantation slave, to entrepreneur, to prize-winning cook, to notable author! I should mention that Abby was also a mother who raised and fed eleven children. Okay, now back to her Sweet Potato Pie. I like to make it on Thanksgiving in honor of Abby.

Tips: Follow Abby's directions more or less as she has written with the following adjustments in mind.

  • I find the filling barely fills two pie shells, so I either increase it or make only one pie, then freeze the reserve mixture for a sweet potato pudding to be made some other time.

  • To save time, you can microwave the sweet potatoes and then mash them well with a fork or electric beater. Abby says five eggs, but remember that today's eggs are bred to be larger, so three will do. Be careful only to use the outer rind--don't go down to the white.

  • Use your favorite pie crust recipe, or consider Abby's technique, which calls for equal portions of butter and lard to achieve good buttery taste as well as flakiness. (I personally prefer all-butter crusts.)

  • And don't make that crust too thick. Abby gives a revelatory tip for pastry making: "roll pastry out to the thickness of an egg-shell for the top of fruit, and that for the bottom of fruit must be thin as paper."

  • Bake in a 400 degree oven, 40 to 45 minutes. Cover crust edges with tin foil, if necessary, to prevent burning during last fifteen minutes or so.