When the leaves of Bear Mountain blazed a golden orange and the morning breezes were invigorated with a noticeable chill, Granny knew it was time to dig up the annual sweet potato crop. Her new favorite everyday dessert became a sweet potato pie, and she often made several for Sunday dinner.
His fondness for this seasonal treat is reminiscent of an old Southern joke that described the sweet potato as the “one” pie worth eating. According to the story, one guy was traveling beyond Henderson County; maybe he was making a rare trip to another state to sell products. In a restaurant, the waiter would regularly ask him if he was interested in dessert. “Yes,” he replied, “bring me a pie. He looked surprised when she asked, “What kind of pie?” Quite puzzled at his question, he replied: “Why, tater pie, ma’am.” What do you think the pie is made of?
To come to such an emphatic conclusion, it seems likely that he visited Bear Mountain and ate Granny’s delicious sweet potato pie. It was certainly a favorite of his parents and guests.
Before starting a tasty baking project, however, Granny needed to haul plenty of firewood from the stake, as well as extra buckets of spring water. Fortunately, in modern times we don’t have these concerns when deciding to bake a pie. After “fetching” wood and water, I remember Grandma made an extra trip to bring a bucket of sweet potatoes from the can. She quickly rinsed off most of the dirt from the garden and tossed the sweet potatoes in a pot of water over the now-lit wood stove.
Old cooks didn’t care about written recipes, so while the sweet potatoes simmered, Grandma gathered her favorite spices for pies. Then she sifted several cups of flour and made pie crusts using a piece of pure lard and a few drops of cold water. Back then, people had never heard of store-bought frozen crusts ready to go in fragile, disposable pans. When expertly rolled homemade dough, it still fits perfectly on real pie pins.
Granny demonstrated her trick of dropping cooked sweet potatoes into a pot of spring water to speed up the cooling process and make peeling easier. Then she crushed the sweet orange pulp with lots of fresh churned butter, a handful of white sugar, and maybe a piece of soft brown sugar. As I watched, she whipped up several eggs in another bowl with a small can of Carnation milk. Without slowing down, she combined the mixes, added a hint of vanilla, and generously sprinkled the whole concoction with nutmeg and cinnamon. Another quick stir, and she folded it all into uncooked pie crusts.
As she dragged the pans into the oven, she occasionally added wooden sticks to the firebox to keep the temperature as close to 375 degrees as possible. Her Model 1910 stove had a thermometer built into the oven door, so with careful maintenance of the fire, she could maintain a fairly constant temperature. Forty years of experience in using this same stove have shown the quality and flavor of its cuisine. Spicy aromas began to fill the house, and Granny’s pies came out perfectly golden around the edges and firm in the center. It would be a feat using a modern electric stove and was doubly so in a wood-fired oven.
As I contentedly played with my favorite rag dolls on the warm kitchen floor, I looked forward to the first slice of fresh, homemade pie. It’s worth remembering that I never liked Granny’s eight-tier stacked pumpkin pies. But I loved the sweet potato pies. Maybe she sometimes stacked them together, but I remember the individual crusts that stayed nice and crisp. Grandma liked the thin, soggy layers of her stacked pies, but I preferred a thicker cinnamon filling on a crispy crust. For my 7 year old taste, sweet potatoes were tastier than pumpkins anyway, so I looked forward to Granny’s fall pies coming out of the oven.
In addition to flavor, country ladies planned these seasonal menus out of necessity, as elders like Grandma and Grandpa grew most of their own food. Even as a child, I knew the rocky fields of beautiful Bear Mountain were not ideally suited for cultivation. But I also knew that Grandma’s annual garden was prolific. I balanced these two opposites by attributing its success to hard work. I could see mounds of rock that she had bucketed to the ends of the rows of gardens, but there were many more in those fields.
Yet one crop that grew relatively well in poor, rocky soil was the sweet potato. And every fall, Grandma harvested several long rows. Granted, most were distorted by today’s standards, but smashed into pies, no one knew the difference. Hard rocky ground prevented the sweet potatoes from reaching the perfectly oblong “football” shape – but they stubbornly continued to grow. Relentless mountaineers might appreciate the resilience of the sweet potato to adapt to a less than desirable environment. People like Grandma and Grandpa had a lot in common with this determined plant. They came from a generous line of Welsh-Scottish-Irish ancestors who had survived these rugged mountains for generations.
Grandma would be delighted and amazed by the beautifully shaped sweet potatoes regularly on display in the produce sections of modern grocery stores. Most of them are grown in the more suitable soil and warmer weather of eastern North Carolina. In fact, over 40 percent of the sweet potatoes produced in the entire United States come from North Carolina, making our state number one in production. No wonder the humble sweet potato has been adopted as the state’s official vegetable. Although competing with other practical suggestions like corn and collard greens, the versatile, flavorful and marketable sweet potato was chosen.
After all, it has been around for a long time. Thought to have been cultivated in Peru around 3,000 years ago, the sweet potato became a staple in South America and was eventually transported to the Caribbean islands. It was there that Christopher Columbus found delicious sweet potatoes and brought them back to Spain. Appreciated by Europeans despite their less than ideal growing seasons, the tasty and long-lasting root was part of the provisions brought to Virginia by English settlers in the 1600s.
However, Native Americans who lived further south were already growing sweet potatoes when Hernando de Soto explored their area (circa 1540). Somehow, the healthy sweet potato had been transported, perhaps through Central America and Mexico, to these more southerly crops.
Centuries later, our holiday dinners wouldn’t look like a celebration without a casserole of sweet potatoes. And I’m probably not the only southerner who prefers sweet potato to pumpkin pie. More and more uses, even today, are being found for this versatile, vitamin-rich root. In recent times, bags of sweet potato chips are being displayed along with regular chips. Some restaurants offer sweet potato fries in place of regular fries, and a roasted sweet potato can often replace a baked potato.
It seems that the more we learn about the ancient sweet potato, the more we want to incorporate it into our diet. Nutritionists now realize that it is one of the foods richest in beta-carotene, vitamins A, B⁶, C, D, iron, manganese and fiber. As Grandma would say, “A good snack is good for anything that troubles you”. In addition to pies, she sometimes fried thick slices in butter and often baked them. Mountain stories recall children carrying hot, baked sweet potatoes in their pockets on snowy walks to school. This convenient take-out lunch also kept their hands warm.
Think about the creative ways your ancestors used this annual fall harvest. Remember your favorite recipes, as well as tasty sweet potato pies.
Janie Mae Jones McKinley’s book “The Legacy of Bear Mountain, Volume 2” (340 pages) is available in Hendersonville at the Historic Court House Gift Shop, The Curb Market, Henderson County Genealogical & Historical Society, MA Pace General Store ( Saluda) and on Amazon.com. Over three years of her Back in the Day columns are included, as well as new stories about Granny’s life at Bear Mountain.