Getting to the roots of sweet potato and pumpkin pie

Photos by Kasumi Loffler on

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on November 25, 2021.

When it comes to Thanksgiving dessert, two pies reign supreme. Pumpkin and sweet potato pies are vital to the holiday feast, but which one is on the table is sometimes rooted in cultural and or regional preference.

In many Black households, bringing a pumpkin pie to the Thanksgiving feast may result in folks getting the side-eye.

And a sweet potato pie with a soggy crust may mean that the baker was not aware of the browning-the-pie-shell-trick which keeps the crust nice and flakey.

Sweet Potato Pie

Sweet potatoes come from South America. It was first made into pies and tarts in Britain. It was a particular favorite of King Henry VIII and became associated with luxury desserts. Yes, the vaunted sweet potato pie has high-brow and bourgeoisie roots.

Submitted photo Rose McGee

Sweet potato pie made its way from Europe to colonial America, where it found root in the South, where the weather was more suitable for the plant. It was often made on plantations by African slaves for slave-owners. The cooks added their own taste, making it more to their liking, and kept the recipe and passed it down. As a result, it became linked to Black culture and few Black folks can remember a time when sweet potato pie wasn’t on the table for a holiday gathering.

“I’ve always considered the sweet potato pie to be the sacred dessert of Black culture,” said Rose McGee, of Sweet Potato Comfort Pie. “To us, it has more soul than pumpkin.” She began the organization when Michael Brown was killed, driving down to Ferguson with some pies to hand out.

She hasn’t looked back.

Sweet Potato Comfort Pie’s mission statement is “A catalyst for caring and building community.” They hand out pies after tragedies, on Juneteenth, on MLK day—the list goes on because they see how much the dessert can mean to people.

close up photo of pumpkin pie with whipped cream
Photo by Kasumi Loffler on

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin Pie has a very similar history to sweet potato pie. Pumpkins originated in Central America and were brought to Europe in the 1500s. It was originally called “pumpion” from the French “pompon,” in reference to its round shape.

It was quickly adapted into a pie and this recipe remained popular with settlers in New England. While the climate in New England made it difficult for sweet potatoes to prosper, pumpkins were well-suited. Over the years, pumpkin has become associated with Thanksgiving because it coincides with its harvesting time. 

In the 19th century, Thanksgiving was a controversial topic. Southern states saw the New England attempt to make the day a national holiday as trying to force their culture down their throat and saw pumpkin pie moreover, such a regional food, as being evidence of anti-slavery sentiment.

Incidentally, in the 19th century, the pie was favored by abolitionists, most of whom hailed from the New England region of the U.S. Several of them included the pie in their written works.

Whether you’ll be eating sweet potato or pumpkin pie this holiday: Happy Thanksgiving!

MSR staff contributed to this story.

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