NB: I have finally changed one mistake in this recipe which made for a really horrible pie experience. It’s taken me three years to do it and there are several published versions of this essay out there. My apologies to the foodies who tried the earlier version and are now seriously hating on me for ruining their holiday. My apologies to those who try the other published versions and will hate me in the future as well.
When a Man Cooks
My 1955 Esquire Cookbook is inscribed “For Valerie with love from Uncle George and Aunt Janet 8.18.58.” I do not know whether it was given to Valerie as a joke or for a new beau, but the thought of it is intriguing nevertheless. Loving old cookbooks is like fingering through a stranger’s life. If they used the book at all, stains left from vegetable and animal proteins will mar the pages, giving the book a patina that lasts. If not, the book comes to you with a single inscription and the pristine pages signal a missed opportunity for culinary enlightenment, or a passive aggressive anti-utilitarianism.
I found the Esquire Cookbook while trolling through an antique bookstore in Greensboro, just a stone’s throw away from the dormitories of Bennett College (founded in 1873 as co-educational; a college for women since 1926) and down the street from that famous Civil Right’s lunch counter. The ghosts of sit-ins and protest marches still sing softly at the edges of historic Elm Street.
The introductory remarks, entitled “When a Man Cooks” encourage us in the following manner: “The thing to do with this book, or any cookbook, for that matter, is to find through trial and error a few recipes that seem particularly to suit you, to express your taste, and then learn them so thoroughly that you could do them with your eyes shut. But first of all, by all means, try them on the dog, and the dog, unless you actually have a dog and are a dog hater to boot, must necessarily be you.” I am not sure about the gendered nature of such remarks or about Valerie and her cookbook gift, or the tables set in 1958 for the ghosts that could not come to dinner, but I am sure about the dog.
What Thanksgiving has not been ruined by a ravenous wolfhound or a few dogs made into a pack by the necessity of having to be brought along because the kennel is full at the holiday. This year, my North Carolina brown dogs, found on the side of the road a few years back, ate enough sweet potatoes – purple and traditional varieties – for four pies. It was my fault, really. Distracted by a perfect bottle of white ’08 Chateauneuf du Pape and the smugness that only comes from having put the confit in the oven and the broth at perfect simmer, I lounged in the living room and chatted with my neighbor. We laughed . . . until we cried.
I returned to the kitchen to mix the recipe for sweet potato pie that comes from my grandmother’s mother’s mother. She never wrote it down, but served it every year at the holidays and it was my favorite. While the other cousins loathed the southern concoction, I could eat a whole pie in one day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. My grandmother was a country girl who married a professor turned banker and did well enough to never work a day outside the home. I loved my Nana with a passion that only a second-generation child can love an adult and Thanksgiving is just not Thanksgiving without her luscious pie.
Hair of the Dog. . .
My neighbor helpfully suggested that I simply ring Cathy and Michael at Periwinkle Farm – only 15 minutes from my home – and try to beg for more potatoes. It was 10 o’clock at night and the local Co-op was closed. I seriously thought about it and even picked up the phone. But what was my excuse – two badly trained American versions of the dingo or too many glasses of French wine? Embarrassing choices, to say the least.
Time for an executive decision. I kept the piecrusts for an apple crostata and added 1 cup of cheddar to that portion. I then used the scraps for some local blueberries that I had on simmer with white sugar, dark muscovado and cassia buds. I strained the latter and used the whole blueberries in the pie, pureed the remainder and strained them for a topping for buttermilk ice cream. My post-thanksgiving dinner – luckily this year I was invited to a friend’s home for the actual event – was a dream of the-sweet-potato-pie that never was. Who can resist a simple white cake with buttermilk ice cream and a dollop of thick blueberry concentrate?
Priscilla’s Sweet Potato Pie
6 sweet potatoes
¾ cup of Baker’s sugar
1 tbs. of dark muscovado sugar
2 tsp. of cinnamon (fresh ground is best – try Ceylon or Penzey’s blend)
½ tsp. of nutmeg (whole, grated)
¼ tsp. cloves (ground fresh)
1 tsp. of ginger
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. salt
½ stick of butter (11g fat or more)
1 can of Pet Milk
Boil, skin and let the potatoes cool. Mash, adding milk and eggs, then sugars and other spices. Add a splash of good cognac or brandy; it will elevate the end result. Bake at 425° for 15 minutes, then 350° for 45 minutes. This one makes four 9-inch pies (not deep dish – my grandmother preferred smaller pies, not hefty ones). You are on your own for pie crust, although I would recommend a crust for a wonderful pâté – I found an excellent one using egg in Pâtés and Terrines, published by Hearst Books in 1984.
With that said, the list here is approximate, because you will not be sure of the sweetness or the spice until you actually taste the potatoes – some years are sweeter than others. This year I had planned to use all three varieties – purple, white and traditional. Experiment with combinations of all three – my farmer’s market friend suggested I make a purple swirl in the pie this year. That will have to wait.
Add ingredients in small lots until you get the right consistency, tasting as you go. Do the same with the spices. After cooking, let the pies cool for at least 2 hours or preferably over-night. They can be eaten at room temperature or cold, given your taste.
Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season and its ghosts. Lovers never won, hearts broken, children old and new, families made and unmade at table or at the airport. Whatever it is, it is always bittersweet. Like this year’s pie that never was. Esquire says, “If you want to ‘bake a cherry pie’ get yourself a good stolid home-economics-type cookbook and hark to every one of the thousand words and pictures it takes to describe the technique. Otherwise, buy yourself a pie-crust mix and follow the simple directions on the package.”
True that, but be careful because at Thanksgiving your dinner always has the potential to go to the dogs.