Of all subjects, you would think that pie would be the least contentious. Yeah, we could maybe debate whether a tart or a cheesecake counts as pie. Otherwise, it’s all good, right?
Mention sweet potato pie and you’ll likely draw dismissive blanks in return. Say the words pumpkin and pie to fans of the sweet potato version and, well, we’ll let Percy Lammie of Marina-based Percy’s Pies respond.
“You’re talking taboo, now,” he says. “The best pumpkin pie I ever had I can’t even remember, because it wasn’t that good.”
And he’s being kind.
When Estately charted Google searches for the competing pies for a 2015 article, writer Ryan Nickum was a just a tad one-sided in his introduction of the matter. “The simple fact is sweet potato pie is far more delicious than conventional pumpkin pie,” he noted. “In fact, it is better in every possible way than pumpkin pie, and if you disagree with that statement you should consult a doctor about your horribly stunted and deficient taste buds.”
Extreme? No way. Objectively, both are right. Even an adequate sweet potato pie trumps a well made pumpkin pie.
There, we said it. And we’re not the only ones.
Just the other day in our opulent, Fabergé and Lalique-laden Weekly offices, we tried out sweet potato pies on unsuspecting interns. One who had never even heard of the pie concluded that is was better by far than pumpkin.
Note: We don’t always subject interns to force feeding, or even reckless experiments...Oh, I’ve been advised that we NEVER do those things.
Anyway, there's more in sweet potato's favor. A quick search through the trove of popular culture on Google found that mentions of sweet potato pie in American music beat out pumpkin by a whopping 3 to 1 margin, and most of the latter came in covers of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” so the actual result is probably close to 10 to 1.
And the artists who associated with sweet potato? Nat King Cole, Al Jarreau, James Taylor, Ray Charles, Glenn Miller, Alabama, Barenaked Ladies and the like. For pumpkin pie it’s Amy Grant. And The Monkees.
“There’s a reason for that,” Lammie observes.
Two years ago, Bravo TV threw their weight behind sweet potato pie. As Bravo’s Kristyn Pomeranz framed the debate, “Every year, we fight the same fight. “Pumpkin pie is what they ate at the first Thanksgiving!” cry the Northerners. (That’s false, by the way.) “Sweet potato pie is more important than turkey!” cry the Southerners. (That’s subjective.) “They’re exactly the same!” cry people who have no palate and probably think that Jim Beam is indiscernible from E.H. Taylor. (That’s sacrilege.)”
Yet pumpkin pie is by far the more popular pie. Estately’s survey found only a few states where sweet potato reigned—the swath from Georgia to Louisiana, as well as the two Carolinas. For the rest, the holidays belong to pumpkin. And some regions, like New England, are adamant about it.
“It’s a Southern pie,” observes Susan Carter of The Perfect Crumb Bakery in Monterey. “A lot of people don’t know about it, but it’s really delicious.”
Carter prepares hers from white sweet potatoes and cream. Lammie’s is more traditional, with sweetened condensed milk and the more familiar orange potatoes.
“I have an old, old family recipe,” he says, explaining that the love of sweet potato pie is born in grandmothers’ homes and church basements. “I want to bring that flavor to the market.”
In general, the sweet potato pie filling is more light and airy, with a unique consistency. Although some cookbooks suggest the two ingredients are interchangeable and the seasoning the same, the better versions rely on only modest use of spices, allowing the natural flavors of the potato to resonate. Pumpkin tends to be more of a custard in texture, as well as a vehicle for nutmeg and the other usual holiday spices.
And there’s another difference. “We don’t make it from a can,” Carter says.
Farm to table? That stops when confronted by the messy (and potentially hazardous) task of slashing at a pumpkin rind with a heavy blade. Peeling potatoes? Hell, even an intern can tackle a few bushels.
Maybe the real question is why the regional divide exists. There are, of course, several different stories, although all of them involve the most despicable aspects of America’s past—slavery, racism and the income gap between rich and poor.
OK, let’s amend that to past and present.
One common version has Europeans bent on colonization—it was the thing to do in the 18th and 19th centuries; the 17th, as well—introducing the pumpkin to West Africa and slaves bringing the tradition to the New World, where they swapped in sweet potatoes.
Another, and probably more accurate, outline has early traders plying the routes between worlds new and old bring potatoes to both Europe and Africa. Desserts were a thing in Europe and an English cookbook put together by Hannah Glasse in 1747 called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy—hard to believe in a world of iron kettles and wood ovens—includes a recipe for puddings from tubers and root vegetables baked in pie shells.
It was not specific to sweet potatoes—or root vegetables, for that matter. Squash and pumpkins (and even parsnips) made the book.
American colonists with the means copied European trends, at least until that little tiff with England. Writing for the Washington Post, Adrian Miller suggested that sweet potatoes—being easier to grow in Southern soil—took over in plantation kitchens (where black slaves did all the cooking).
After the boys in blue kicked rebel ass, the sweet potato pie became part of African American (“slave cabins rarely had the cooking equipment or appliances necessary to adequately bake a pie,” Miller pointed out) and poor Southern tradition. The African American diaspora took the pie north and west, but it remained largely trapped in segregated neighborhoods, at least for a time.
Those are shorthand accounts, obviously. It’s Friday, pie is calling and Michelle’s Soul Food Kitchen just happens to sell sweet potato pie (usually) and be open on Friday. So condensing history into a couple of short paragraphs seems like the thing to do.
Simply put, sweet potato pie is part of a great national dispute that shouldn't even exist. When first timers try a slice, they tend to cross over. Two years ago, Lammie sold 40 pies for the holidays. This year, he’s at over 400, with orders still coming in.
“I’ve had to change a lot of people’s minds,” he says.