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Beautiful Sweet Potato and Pie for Thanksgiving

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
reprint with afterward by Karen Hess


Detail from a new painting by Nancy.

I’ve written about this recipe before.  But I love it so much I’m going to do it again.  Sometimes I wonder why people are continually searching for new recipes when so many great old ones already exist.  This sweet potato pie not only works perfectly well, but also comes with an amazing story.

It comes from Abby Fisher, who was a slave and probably the first one (that we know of anyway) to have published a cookbook.  According to food historian Karen Hess, she was born in South Carolina during the 1830s and probably cooked in the big house of the master--perhaps one of those baronial plantation homes owned by French Huguenots not far from Charleston.  In 1870, she had survived slavery and the Civil War, when she and her family tset out for the West in search of a better life.  In a covered wagon filled with children and their lives’ possessions, they took the overland trail, making a pit stop in Missouri where Abby gave birth. In California, she and her husband set up a pickle-and-preserve business, which was obviously so good that Abby became locally famous, 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 to do it herself.

Imagine.  From slavery to cross country migration.  To small business owner.  To cookbook author.  What a woman.  So with this great story of human accomplishment in mind, I’m making Sweet Potato Pie this Thanksgiving. I hope you will too.  I’ll post a photo when mine is done...sometime within the next 24 hours.

Okay:  click the jump for the modernized version.  This is an easy, single crust pie.  You wont regret it.

For One 9-inch Pie:

First the crust.  Use your favorite.  Or try mine:

1/8 cup all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
8 T very cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
A small bowl of ice water

1.  Sift flour, sugar, and salt together (or just mix well).

2.  Work quickly to add your butter to flour so it breaks up into little pea sized balls--without melting.  You can use your hands, a fork, or pastry blender. I prefer the food processor and process for 10 to 15 seconds until the mixture seems to have a cornmeal texture.

3.  Place it in a bowl and sprinkle 3 tablespoons of ice water lightly about the dough and start to pull it together.  Your goal is to gather it up in a ball in your hands.  If too dry, add more of the water, perhaps up to 4 or 5 tablespoons, but as little as possible. Shape dough into a flat round disk.  Wrap in plastic and put your dough in the freezer 10 minutes or the fridge for a half hour or longer if you’ve got the time.

4.  Roll dough on a floured surface.  Start in middle and roll outward.  Roll so it is VERY thin, otherwise your bottom will remain raw. 

5.  When you have your circle of thin dough, take your pie plate, invert and lay down on the dough.  Use wheel or knife to cut out a circle about two inches wider in circumference than your pie dish.  Then gently lift and place into the actual dish. Make pretty edges by crimping with your fingers or indenting all around with the tines of a fork. 

Filling for one pie

1 ½ pounds sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon butter
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk
juice of 1 small orange
grated outer rind (do not go down to the white) of half small orange
brown sugar to taste, from ½ to ¾ cup depending on your palate and the sweetness of your potatoes
2 large eggs, yolks and whites separated

1.  Bake or microwave the sweet potatoes and while still hot, mash them well with a fork or electric beater until very smooth. 

2.  Immediately add salt, butter, milk orange juice and rind.  Mix well.  Add ½ cup sugar and taste.  Add more if desired.

3.  Add egg yolks.  Then whisk or beat whites until they are fluffy and fold into mixture.  (You can decide how much effort you wish to put into this.  If you beat them to a real fluff you will have a lighter pie.)

4.  Fill pie crust with mixture and bake in 400 degree oven for 45 minutes.  Check half way.  If crust is getting too dark, cover with tin foil to prevent burning.  You will probably need to take this step for at least the last 15 minutes.

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Thanks so much for featuring Abby Fisher and her sweet potato pie on your website.

Last year, I wrote a long genealogical/culinary history essay about Abby Fisher and her roots in South Carolina.  Entitled Solving a Culinary History Mystery - Tracing Abby Fisher’s Roots to South Carolina, it was published in Repast, the Quarterly Publication of the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor.  One interesting discovery (for me) was learning that in South Carolina sweet potatoes were cured in smoke houses.  So your recreation of Abby Fisher’s sweet potato pie for your Thanksgiving dinner may not taste like hers.

You also might like to know that after her very remarkable life, Abby has very sadly ended up in an unmarked grave at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, CA.  I have found the grave and next year I intend to petition the cemetery for the right to install an appropriate headstone on her grave.

Robert W. Brower
El Sobrante, CA

    –  (November 26 2008 at 11:19)

I just read your article in Saveur last night.  Today I get an email about your latest entry in your blog.  I have no clue how I ended up on your feed, but I’m glad I am. 

2 great articles.  Congrats!!

    – Randi (November 26 2008 at 11:08)

I loved reading this recipe, although I haven’t made it yet. I wanted to throw in something that I just learned this summer, which is that sweet potato foliage is also edible and is quite delicious. I prefer it as a cooked green, but the Australian woman who taught me to eat the leaves likes them in salads too. In southeast Asia they’re a common green, and are grown as much for the greens as for the tubers. Here in New Mexico they are one of the few good sources of greens in our summer heat. I was fascinated to find this out. My garden is small and so I’m always interested to find dual- or trople-purpose vegetables.

    – Heather Wood (December 03 2008 at 8:29)

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