Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Cultural, Regional, & Racial Associations Of Sweet Potato Pie

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is post provides information about the cultural, regional, and racial associations of sweet potato pie (dessert). Three videos of songs that include references to sweet potato pie are also included in this post. Brief excerpts of these song's lyric and links to the complete lyrics of these songs are included in this post. These examples are from non-African American vocalists and from African American artists.

The content of this post is presented for cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all composers and vocalists who are featured in this posts. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post, and thanks to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.

"Sweet potato pie" is a traditional side dish in the Southern United States. It is often served during the American holiday season, especially at Thanksgiving, and is similar in many ways to pumpkin pie. Marshmallows are sometimes added as a topping, but this was adopted more in the Northern United States than in the South.

It is usually made as a large tart in an open pie shell without a top crust. The filling consists of mashed sweet potatoes, milk, sugar and eggs, flavored with spices such as nutmeg. Other possible ingredients include vanilla or banana extracts. The baked custard filling may vary from a light and silky to dense, depending on the recipe's ratio of mashed potato, milk and eggs.

Though creamy vegetable pie recipes date back to Medieval Europe, sweet potato pie appears in the southern United States from the early colonial days.[1] Like many sweet potato recipes, sweet potato pie was likely developed by the black slaves from traditional African cuisine, making it a staple of Soul food today.[2] Recipes for sweet potato pie first appeared in printed cookbooks in the 18th century, where it was included with savory vegetable dishes. By the 19th century, sweet potato pie was more commonly classified as a dessert."
Here's some information about pumpkin pie, a similar dessert from
"Pumpkin pie is a traditional sweet dessert, often eaten during the fall and early winter, especially for Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States and Canada. The pumpkin is a symbol of harvest time and featured also at Halloween.

The pie consists of a pumpkin-based custard, ranging in color from orange to brown, baked in a single pie shell, rarely with a top crust. The pie is generally flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger.

This pie is often made from canned pumpkin or packaged pumpkin pie filling (spices included)."

First, here's my .02 cents on this subject: I grew up eating sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and at other times, particularly in the winter months. While I had heard of pumpkin pie, I never tasted it until I attended a predominately White college. Pumpkin pie was on the dessert menu for that college's Thanksgiving menu, and according to my unscientific survey, it seems that few White students I asked had ever heard of sweet potato pie. For the record, I very much prefer sweet potato pie to pumpkin pie whose seasoning seemed bland to me-when I tasted it in college and at other times.

In searching the internet for information on this subject I happened upon Saturday, November 24, 2007: Sweet Potato vs Pumpkin: A Debate

Background- The blogger, a mixed race (Black/White) woman wrote that she attends two meals for Thanksgiving-one with her White relatives, and one with her Black relatives. "One huge difference at Thanksgiving in particular, is the choice of pie at the end--namely the availability of either pumpkin or sweet potato.". The women didn't specify which family served which dessert, but she asked persons reading her blog to post their preference for sweet potato pie or pumpkin pie. She also asked commenters to post their opinions about whether they thought there racial preferences or lack of familiarity with either of these desserts. Here are a few of those comments:
Janie said...
"I have always only made and eaten potato pies, but I don't think I have ever had a homemade Pumpkin. It never dawned on me that the "orange" pie in black houses was Potato and the "orange" pie in white houses was Pumpkin."

Kia said...
"You are right's a color thing. Growing up we only had Sweet Potatoe pie the whole time, I never even considered that an orange pie wasn't Sweet Potatoe When my sister married a white man and we merged our holiday celebrations, suddenly pumpkin pie started showing up at family dinners, tricking us visually before we tasted it! Sweet potatoe is definitely better, however they are both good."

PatricktheRogue said...
"Hi ya'll,
I suggest that the South may give you your answer. In the southern United States, sweet potato pie is much more popular than pumpkin, by both black and white folks. So it is not just a "white" thing. I think you will find most of the whites who eat pumpkin pie have roots in the North and/or East. Southern white folks, who have access to both pumpkin and sweet potato pie, routinely choose Sweet potato as their favorite. "
A lengthy comment to that blog by Channon Williams suggests that the reason why sweet potato pie tastes better than pumpkin pie is the use of butter and various seasonings.

Here's a comment from another internet blog post that refers to this topic:
From "Sweet Potato vs Pumpkin Pie: Regional or Cultural (reheat, preheat, butter)"
11-21-2008, 03:07 AM Location...near Atlanta

"Originally Posted by MarqueseGilmore
I think its a south/north and black/white thing.......but thats me generalizing!!

Well, in The South, I think you will find sweet potato pie to be more common, and that is across racial lines. I know blacks and whites down here that make and enjoy either, but in each case you are more likely to encounter sweet potato. So to that extent I would not say it is a racial divide on that, just a regional culture thing. In The North, you won't see sweet potato pie much, if at all, but the few times I did run across it indeed it WAS more likely among black people...maybe just a case of taking food preferences north with them when family members relocated from states to the south. You cook what you know and prefer even when you move and the base ingredients are not as common in your new locale. Family tradition and custom endure even over great distance and time. There is probably a comparable divide concerning where rice wins out (or at least has an increased preference) over potatoes as being a featured starch in a meal. Southerners DO tend to embrace rice more frequently than Northerners, maybe because we have grown it down here for so long."
The country music group Alabama's "Songs Of The South" which mentions sweet potato pie supports the opinion that non-Black people in the South are quite familiar with sweet potato pie. The next section of this post showcases three examples of songs that include some mention of sweet potato pie.

These examples are presented in chronological order based on their posting date with the oldest examples given first.

Example #1: James Taylor Sweet Potato Pie

kentheguru, Uploaded on Aug 21, 2008

Here's JT and friends doing "Sweet Potato Pie" live, shortly after it was released.......
Comment: Sam Sticka, 2009
"On the original version of "Sweet Potato Pie", James sang the song all by himself. Arnold McCuller and Rosemary Butler (the backups here) didn't back him up."

Lyric excerpt:
"Oh Lord I feel fine today
Walking on cloud nine today
I'm over that line today
Happiness is finally mine today

I guess I'm just a lucky guy
Here I'm about to tell you why
It's strictly on account of my
Sweet Potato Pie"

[In this song "sweet potato pie" is a complimentary referent for a female lover.]

Click for the complete lyrics to this song.

Example #2: Al Jarreau - Sweet Potato Pie (live, 1976)

musicbox285, Uploaded on Aug 19, 2009

Al Jarreau live in Hamburg, Germany, 1976,

Now it was a hot sticky morning
'Round the Fourth of July
The breeze was standing still
I'm hanging out by myself
And I'm having a good time
With the folk inside my head
And you know, Lord,
how you did a lovely thing
See, times my head is lighter
than it's ever been
And anyone who's ever had
sweet potato pie
Don't want pumpkin again,
no, they don't want

'Cause it don't taste right, no
Look-a-here city boy with your
silks and braided hair
Don't you let nobody fool you
with no imitation nothing
Tell 'em, say, unh, unh, buddy,
I been there
Listen mama, when you
finally walk on in
Don't forget to bring along
Your sweet potato tin
'Cause when you serve him
a slice of your sweet potato

Sin, girl, he won't want pumpkin again,
no, he won't want
Now I took a trip down to Sissy's
She's a friend of mine
She smiled and asked me in
Well, she drew a box and a big,
fancy question mark
Said, "Brother, which one is you in?"
I told her, "Sister, don't worry
'bout the mule going blind
You just sit in the wagon and
hold on to the line
'Cause anyone who's ever had
sweet potato pie
Don't want pumpkin again,
really don't want"...

[In this song "sweet potato pie" refers to the dessert.]

Click for the complete lyrics to this song.

Example #3: ALABAMA - Song Of The South

suttersmith66, Uploaded on Sep 13, 2009
Lyric excerpt:
"Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth
Gone, gone by the wind
There ain't nobody looking back again"

[In this song, "sweet potato pie" refers to the dessert.

Click to the complete lyrics for this song.

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  1. Fantastic article on one of my favorite desserts. I bake sweet potato pies every Thanksgiving for me and my household. I'm from the Southern United States but my wife and daughter are from South Africa. They love it! Maybe it is a global southern "thing." Well, I'll have to do a taste test for people in Southern Sudan, South Korea, or the South of France to be certain. :-)

    1. Stephen Bess, thanks for taking the time to share your comments.

      I love your sense of humor.

      Best wishes to you and your family!