Sweet Potato Pie • 11.26.09
I want to tell you about my grandmother-in-law, Andy’s grandmother, Jethel.
Jethel was a proper, old-fashioned, Southern country woman. She was beloved by the members of her small, Baptist church. She never forgot to send cards for every holiday and birthday. She collected thimbles and photos of her grandchildren. She was an amazing cook.
She wasn’t an amazing chef. There’s a difference. Jethel didn’t use fancy seasoning. She didn’t worry about presentation on the plate. And she definitely didn’t cook anything hip and trendy.
But, she could cook. She made food you can raise a family on. Food that warms up grandkids on winter mornings. She made cornbread every single day. She could cook any meat that her family of hunters brought her from the woods around her little house. She made tables groaning with food on Thanksgiving.
Andy and I have been a couple since I was in high school, so I’ve spent years and years celebrating Abercrombie family holidays out in the country at Jethel’s house. We’d all drive out there, with various casserole dishes filled with food, or cakes wrapped in tin foil. Jethel would have the wood-burning stove fired up and we’d all begin shedding our jackets and sweaters as soon as we walked into her tiny, toasty living room. The TV was never on. There was never a radio going in the background. Instead, we all focussed on each other and on the food.
With Jethel on our wedding day
As she got older, more and more of the food was brought by relatives. Fewer and fewer things came out of her well-worn kitchen. But, the things that she did make were wonderful. Sticky buns flavoured with orange, sweet and crumbly corn bread, greens or green beans braised with pork, and sweet potato pie.
For Andy, Jethel’s sweet potato pie is the standard against which all other sweet potato pies are judged- and found lacking. Her pie was very simple. No fancy spices, no whipped cream on top. Basic and tasting of what it was… sweet potatoes. Hers was a pie for purists.
I loved Jethel like she was my own grandmother. She was always kind to me, always made me feel included in the family holidays… even before I was officially part of the family. When she died this summer, I felt like I’d lost the opportunity to learn more from her. I asked my mother-in-law to save me one of Jethel’s well-worn cast iron skillets from her kitchen. I love the idea of having that little piece of Abercrombie family history in my own kitchen… being used to, some day, feed a new generation of Jethel’s family.
We don’t get to really celebrate Thanksgiving here in England, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy some of the traditions of this, the greatest of American holidays. This year, for the first time, I made sweet potato pie. I was prepared for Andy’s scrutiny, and I got it. I added too much cinnamon to the pie filling. But, I really liked the pie with a touch of cinnamon, so I said a silent apology to Jethel and left the cinnamon in. This isn’t her pie exactly, but I was inspired by her whilst making it.
We’ll be at work on Thanksgiving Day, but I hope that many of you are lucky enough to be with your families, your own grandmothers, surrounded by food. I hope that you’re lucky enough to have a slice of sweet potato pie.
Sweet Potato Pie
pastry for one pie crust (make your own or shop bought)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups mashed sweet potato (I baked mine until they were super soft, then just scooped out the middles)
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp cinnamon*
1 stick (113g) butter
1 small can evaporated milk
Preheat your oven to 350F. Line a pie plate or a tart case with your pastry and place in the fridge to firm up.
Meanwhile, combine all of the other ingredients in a large bowl and beat well, until smooth and creamy. The mixture will be very runny. That’s ok.
Remove your pie crust from the fridge and fill with the sweet potato mixture.
Bake the pie for 1 hour or until golden on top and firm to the touch. The pie filling will “rise” up a bit during cooking. Don’t worry. That’s just the eggs. The pie will settle down after a few minutes out of the oven.
Serve warm, at room temp or cold… it’s delicious!