What Making a Sweet Potato Pie with My Grandma Taught Me About Being Black in the South
When my now-husband matched into a three-year residency at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, I was more than a little concerned about what I was getting into. Although I was born and raised in Los Angeles, my family is actually from Louisiana. My great-grandparents fled the South and headed out west in the 1940s along with millions of other African Americans to escape racial terror during the Great Migration. Neither my great-grandparents nor my grandparents ever spoke much about their lives down South, but when I was a child it was hard to escape the feeling that the region was dangerous — especially for black folks.
When I told my family that I was going to move from sunny southern California to Georgia, instead of excitement I was met with a mix of silence and palpable tension. “You sure you want to move down South?” my grandmother Annie, who’s from Shreveport, asked me, bewildered.
My move across the country also coincided with the first time I would be away from my family for Thanksgiving; I would have to cook the whole spread all on my own. For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving was the one holiday where all of the matriarchs of my family gathered in my mother’s kitchen the night before to start cooking. At any given moment, in one space was four generations and almost 100 years of history fluttering about in time-worn aprons creating the feast that our family looked forward to annually.
If I close my eyes, I can still transport myself back to that kitchen. I hear my great-grandmother Christine George ordering everyone around while she cleaned the collard greens and set the ham hocks in a pot of water to boil. I see my mom and my Aunt Lisa darting across the creaking mahogany wood floors grabbing spices, taking cornbread out of the oven, and seasoning the turkey.
And somewhere in all of this controlled chaos was my grandmother. Her job was to make the sweet potato pie. As a kid, I would happily wait near the kitchen counter while she snuck me spoonfuls of nutmeg-scented jammy purée before she poured the filling into waiting pie shells. Each pie always came out the perfect shade of caramelized orange.
As any black person knows, there’s usually only one — maybe two — people in any given family that are trusted with making this dessert. Sweet potato pie is a culturally significant staple in any African American home come holiday season, and a non-negotiable on Thanksgiving. My grandmother’s pie is still the one treat I looked forward to having all year long.
Facing the prospect of having my first holiday without her pie, I did the only logical thing. A couple of months before Thanksgiving, I called my grandmother to beg for her recipe — a previous baking attempt a few days prior was a complete disaster.
Instead of the recipe, however, she sent me her flight itinerary. She was coming to Atlanta to teach me in person. She was scheduled to arrive a few weeks before Thanksgiving. When she landed, we went to a nearby grocery store and grabbed the essentials: two medium-sized sweet potatoes, pie crust, eggs, cream, butter, and, of course, baking spices.
Once we got back to my place and set about making the pies, our conversation was, at first, instructional. While she busied herself getting acquainted with my small kitchen, I gathered the tools we needed to get started. We fell into an easy rhythm. At some point while whisking eggs and dashing spices, however, my grandmother started doing something she hadn’t done before — she began opening up about her childhood in Shreveport. There is something about learning how to cook culturally significant dishes from your elders that feels like a séance with the ingredients acting as the medium to help connect with the dead.
My grandmother started telling me about the “colored only” signs that dotted entryways, gas stations, diners, and windows of the streets and businesses in her community. How her mother had left by train to travel to Los Angeles and left her in the care of her own grandmother for years before bringing her to California to live as well. She told me about the black men and women she knew who went “missing” only to be found at the end of a rope or never seen again.
But she also told me about joyfully playing in ponds and creeks behind her home hunting for mudbugs (crawfish). She told me how she learned to make sweet potato pie from her grandmother, just like she was teaching me now. When I looked up at her face, awash in the glow of the light emanating from the warm oven, I saw the unmistakable love she still had for a region that has been the source of so much pain not only in my own family, but also in countless black families across the country.
There is no denying that the South has a complicated history — especially for many African Americans. A quick Google image search will bring up pictures of beautiful stately mansions (read: plantations), charming landscapes, and smiling faces. But scroll a little further down and you’ll also see images of enslaved Americans, policemen using fire hoses against other human beings fighting for civil rights, and lynchings.
While I initially moved to Georgia for love, the conversation I had with my grandmother helped to show me that the South I was raised to fear is a part of my legacy. I belong here. Far from a region that is best never spoken about or visited, the South is my home and one I hope to raise my children in.
Before leaving to head back to Los Angeles, my grandmother turned to me before getting out of the car at the airport and said that being back down South after over 60 years away made her regret that she never took her children or grandchildren to visit her hometown. I realized that sharing that moment in my kitchen with my grandmother was about so much more than learning how to make a Thanksgiving recipe. It was about reclaiming and redefining my place in the larger narrative of my family’s history with the South and my responsibility to preserve that legacy by learning how to make dishes like sweet potato pie.