I have a sweet potato problem. When autumn comes and locally grown sweet potatoes appear in markets, I buy them reflexively, the way people stock up on bread before a hurricane. With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching and an assignment to bake something from a historical Virginia cookbook, I resolved to make a dent on the heaping bowl of sweet potatoes on my counter.
When I set out to make the sweet potato pie recipe from Marion Cabell Tyree’s 1877 Housekeeping in Old Virginia, it was with a certain trepidation. I don’t excel at making pie crust from scratch, and as a New Englander residing in the South, I’m well aware that the sweet potato pie contains layers of cultural significance that I’ve only glimpsed from the surface.
Without the benefit of this knowledge, a historical cookbook such as Housekeeping in Old Virginia is littered with ciphers. How much is a teacup of butter? How do I “make up” a dough? Who was doing all of this cooking, anyway? Writing at the tail end of Reconstruction, Tyree only alludes to the Black women who were doing much of the labor and culinary improvisation in Virginia kitchens. Instead, she addresses white women attempting to emulate an aspirational, uniquely Virginian approach to Southern hospitality, a set of practices that Tyree calls “the very perfection of domestic art.”
Tyree was not a pie fan. “Pastry,” she wrote, “has fallen somewhat into disfavor, on account of its unwholesome properties, but as many persons still use it, we will give some directions for making it as wholesome and palatable as possible.” This sentence puzzled me: was pastry a class marker for Tyree? Am I letting the side down by baking this indulgent traditional dessert instead of the elegant cakes or fussy puddings documented elsewhere in Housekeeping in Old Virginia?
According to culinary historian Adrian Miller, sweet potato pie has its origins in the English kitchen but soon arrived in Southern plantation households, where sweet potatoes were an abundant local crop. Combining a New World vegetable with British pastry techniques, sweet potato pie was shaped by colonialism and the labor of enslaved Africans, whose adoption of sweet potatoes spoke to their familiarity with an analogue crop, the West African yam. Now sweet potato pie’s associations are at once Black and Southern, what Miller calls “a taste of home.”
Tyree may not have a high opinion of pastry, but she does supply dozens of pie recipes. On a Sunday afternoon, I opened a digitized copy of Housekeeping in Old Virginia, boiled what I judged to be “a pint” of sweet potatoes, and began baking.
For my pie crust, I chose a recipe attributed to “Mrs. W.” This recipe omitted lard, an ingredient that I didn’t have available on short notice. Mrs. W proposed a pastry technique that I’d never tried before—adding ice water first, then incorporating the butter while rolling the dough out. Maybe this would be my pie crust breakthrough?
Alas, not so. Pie dough is supposed to be handled as little as possible, but the butter did not incorporate easily. I ended up with several pieces of heavy, cracked dough, a sort of pie crust archipelago. I’m sure I made things more difficult by my choice of flour, a hard whole wheat milled in North Carolina. By 1877, I suspect many Virginia housewives would have access to white pastry flour, but I doubted it would resemble my bag of finely-ground King Arthur’s. Cursing my commitment to historical accuracy, I pieced the crust together, stuck it in the refrigerator (Tyree suggests pastry crusts be “put on ice”), and hoped for the best.
I moved on to the instructions of “Mrs. T,” the contributor of my sweet potato pie recipe. First, I was supposed to mash my boiled sweet potato with a “teacup of sweet milk.” Sweet milk referred to fresh milk—in an era before the modern refrigerator, a cook was just as likely to have a cultured milk product available. Thanks to the 2006 article “When Is a Cup Not a Cup? Demystifying Nineteenth Century Measurements and How to Measure Ingredients” by Virginia Mescher, I decided a teacup was 3/4 cup by American measurements. After mixing, Mrs. T wanted me to run the blend “through a colander.” I was pretty sure she meant a large metal sieve, but I don’t own one, and for this recipe I wasn’t resorting to the food processor. As a result, my base filling retained some fiber. If Virginia housekeeping was a graded course, I don’t think I’d be earning top marks.
I separated four eggs, a step usually omitted in modern recipes. I chose medium-sized eggs, as I suspected 19th-century hens would produce somewhat smaller eggs than today’s jumbo varieties. Next came butter and sugar, and here my dedication to Mrs. T’s vision faltered—she called for a teacup of butter, or 1.5 sticks. I decided I’d gotten the math wrong and added a stick of butter instead. Again eschewing my food processor, I used a pastry scraper to cream the butter and sugar and was pleasantly surprised by the results.
I combined the ingredients with “half a nutmeg,” (a teaspoon), as well as a uniquely 19th-century touch—a “large wine-glass” of brandy. Reviewing Mescher’s article, I decided to add 1/3 cup. The mixture that resulted had a slightly grainy texture, but it tasted heavenly. (Note: a good Virginia housekeeper should obey the warning of the Virginia Cooperative Extension and not consume pie filling with raw eggs.)
I poured the filling into my chilled pie dough and baked it at 350°F for about an hour, until the center was more or less solid. You can see that I don’t keep toothpicks in my kitchen, but stab wounds aside, I felt pleased with the results of 2+ hours of labor. I’d had it easy compared to a cook in a 19th-century kitchen, producing multiple pies to serve an extended family. Then again, in these pandemic times I was working alone in my tiny apartment, without the benefit of family members—or in the case of Tyree’s readers, paid domestic labor—whose pie-baking secrets have never been recorded in books.
When I finally sampled the fruits of my labor on Thanksgiving Day, it was hard to say whether my pie lived up to the recipe writers’ vision. The crust exceeded expectations; apparently a stick of butter is adequate compensation for shoddy technique and questionable flour. The filling was flavorful, but my low-tech, low-effort blending methods meant that it didn’t have the silky custard texture that I associate with sweet potato pie. As the homemade finale to a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, however, the pie earned full marks.
Ultimately, the process of turning my hoarded sweet potatoes into a fiddly dessert will probably be more memorable than the pie itself. I like to think my modern kitchen and inexpert baking would fill Marion Cabell Tyree and all her distinguished ladies with equal parts wonder and despair.