For Black History Month, Sweet Potato Comfort Pie founder Rose McGee writes about how she began her baking activism and the historical significance of sweet potato pie in Black culinary traditions. Our thanks to Rose for sharing her personal baking story!
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Despite being the founder of an organization called Sweet Potato Comfort Pie, I didn’t wake up loving to bake pie. It took decades before I could actually hear the calling from what I consider to be the sacred dessert of Black culture: the sweet potato pie. Now, however, it has surpassed being a delicious dessert; for me, it’s my mission and ministry.
I didn’t choose sweet potato pie. It chose me.
I grew up in rural Jackson, Tennessee, raised by my paternal grandmother and great-grandmother. Those precious women would whip up sweet potato pies all the time, usually to give away to members of our community: a family in mourning, someone who had given birth, or newlyweds.
I say “those women” because I never had to cook — they did. I washed the dishes and even peeled the potatoes, but cooking wasn’t my passion. As a result, I was a late bloomer when it came to baking pies.
My first calling from the sweet potato pie came when I moved to Denver to get married after college. I wasn’t a good cook to say the least, yet one Sunday I decided to make a sweet potato pie. I called my grandmother (who I call Mama) in Tennessee and asked her for the recipe. “Recipe? What recipe?” she asked. “I just make it, Baby.”
Sadly, Baby made the biggest mess as Mama recited those soulful ingredients along with her heart-ingrained measurements. It would take several tosses in the garbage before I finally got a pie worthy for human consumption. Once I acquired my own groove, my sweet potato pie was in Mama’s league. (Well maybe not, because can’t nobody make a sweet potato pie like my Mama!)
I kept making sweet potato pies — even selling my award-winning dessert at farmers' markets — but it would be several more decades before the calling kicked into full gear. It came when I least expected, and it felt like being in church when the preacher calls us to say “Amen.” This time, I had no choice but to finally respond.
Answering my pie calling
It happened in 2014 when, like many people, I watched passionate protests erupt in Ferguson, Missouri because another Black mother’s baby had been killed at the hands of law enforcement. This time it was young Michael Brown. I sat in front of my television feeling the pain as though I was right there in the thick of the summer sweat, blood, and tears. I cried out to God to please just stop this hatred. He said to me just as clearly, “Go make some pies and take them down there.”
I went into my kitchen and decided that was just what I’d do. Within the next few days, I packed about 30 sweet potato pies in the trunk of my car and drove from my home in Minnesota to Ferguson with my son, Adam.
By the time we arrived in Ferguson, the first round of protests had stopped. The town was dead silent as people waited for an indictment. But a young girl stood next to Michael Brown’s makeshift memorial, arguing with Michael out loud. “You should have been inside!” she said. “Why did you have to come outside that day?”
I approached her, and after talking for a bit, I asked if she would like a pie. Stunned and in disbelief, she accepted. What happened next rendered me speechless. She held the pie, rocked it, and began to cry. We both did.
And so it went with each pie I gave out during that journey. Each person was amazed this woman from Minnesota was giving them a sweet potato pie.
The trip to Ferguson opened my eyes to what people want: to be listened to, respected, and given equal rights backed up with equitable access. And so it began — Sweet Potato Comfort Pie was official and now had my full attention. I returned to Minnesota knowing I had a purpose helping bridge communication between people of all ethnicities. And if one pie at a time can help do so — then let the baking begin!
To me, sweet potato pie is the sacred dessert of Black culture
This work isn’t new. Throughout this country’s history, the sweet potato pie has always had a special power, particularly in Black communities. In the early 1900s, Mary McLeod Bethune rode her bicycle throughout the community selling sweet potato pies to raise money to open a school for freed Black boys and girls to get higher education. Today Bethune-Cookman University in Dayton Beach, Florida still meets the needs of young people as they “enter to learn and exit to serve.”
George Washington Carver did more than work with peanuts; his research helped popularize sweet potatoes too (making other recipes, like Sweet Potato Cinnamon Rolls, possible as well). Even earlier than that, formerly enslaved Abby Fisher included her sweet potato pie recipe in one of the first books published by a Black chef: 1881’s What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking.
I love how the early cooks add "a dash" of this and "a pinch" of that because that’s exactly how Mama taught me, and it guarantees the pies come from the heart.
Meanwhile, Georgia Gilmore brought about change through her cooking as she tirelessly made pies and other soul foods during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She showed there is power in food culture, and she inspired future Black bakers in the process.
Pie is a tool for healing
When feeding protestors pie in North Minneapolis after the killing of young Jamar Clark, I created a sign that said, “Fortify! Fortify! With Sweet Potato Comfort Pie!” After the killing of Philando Castile, we carried pies to his family knowing “It’s what’s in the batter that matters,” as I like to say.
Hundreds of Sweet Potato Comfort Pie volunteers have helped distributed 3,000 pies to bring comfort to many families and communities, including Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina after the killing of nine worshippers, the killings at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and after the murder of Mr. George Floyd right here in Minneapolis.
Despite all the grief and tragedy, I still remain hopeful.
For the seventh year now, hundreds gathered with me over pie in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day last month. Each year, volunteers bake the number of pies Dr. King’s age would be if he were alive. This January, despite COVID and the assault on the nation’s Capitol, people convened virtually to talk about race and to share stories about who they would like to gift the 92 pies (Dr. King’s age). Stories were told by people of all ages and ethnicities.
Seeing and hearing youth share about gifting to others reassured me that love is being amplified by these pies. And for that very reason, I remain encouraged as I keep my eyes on the pies.
All photos courtesy of Rose McGee and Sweet Potato Comfort Pie, with the exception of the black and white photo of Dr. Bethune, which is courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.