The truth is, I could eat a whole pie myself but I didn’t appreciate being the target of all the fussing that came behind it. “Girl, is you done ate the whole pie? Leave a little. Everybody wants some...” So, I ate in small sliver slices, making several trips to the kitchen when no one was looking. It actually tasted better than a mouth full of sweet potato mush; and with coffee in the morning- it was breakfast. I took a pie to college once. My roommate said, “Don’t you want to wrap it up and refrigerate it so it will be fresh for tomorrow?” It never occurred to me that a pie could last longer than a few hours...
A colleague at work had said, “Why don’t you just ask for the recipe?” One of the subtle messages passed on to me as a child is that a good recipe is not something that you give away freely to any old body. If a pie or a cake is done well, it’s understood as a gift and a work of art. If you need a gift that someone else has, you humbly ask the individual to do you the honor of making the dish, after which your appreciation is demonstrated in a way that mutually understood. Should you off handedly ask someone publicly, “Now, what you put in this pie?” It’s always assumed that you’re just looking for a laugh and you get answers like, “oh, a little of this and that,” or “oh, you got to make sure you sift your sugar just right…” whatever that means. The ultimate compliment is, “Oooohhh, she put her foot in it that time!” While this phrase has an interesting history, in this context, it Implies that the food is good, and that goodness is directly associated with the person who made it. I actually heard a women who was asked about her pound cake say, “Well, I put my foot in it first. I stirred it around…” Translation: You will never make my pound cake!
So, knowing this, imagine my surprise when on my first birthday far away from home, my husband presents me with a sweet potato pie! (Did I mention that he is not Black?) It looked like Momma’s pie (which distinctively is not orange, but has brown overtones from the brown sugar and long cooking time…). When I asked him how he figured out how to make it, he proudly announced, “I asked your mother for her recipe!” And I said to myself, My mother has never used a recipe in her life, but the gesture was so sweet that I vowed to pretend to like it, no matter how it tasted.
I asked him, “What did Momma tell you…exactly?”
“Well,” he said, “she was very vague. I had to write down every word she said like, ‘sprinkle a little cinnamon,’ and, ‘you put the milk in and mix it until it’s about right.’ I don’t know what ‘about right’ is- but I did what I could. I had to ask her a lot of questions on the phone but in the end, we both agreed that that only Amy would know if I did it right.“
So with that, I cut a slim sliver slice, and tasted it... Dead on! I was shocked! It was Love. It was Momma. It was Home.
I called Momma- her first words: “Did you taste the pie? I don’t know what I told him- (you know I don’t measure nothing) but when he said it was for your birthday, I told him the best I could when he called. I don’t know what he did. So… how did it come out?”
“It was good!” I exploded, “Really good, it tasted just like yours!” Two thousand miles away, I could hear her sigh of relief at the other end of the line. “So, what is the recipe?” I asked.
“I don’t KNOW!” She said it as if I had asked her where the almighty God came from. “I get up early and make them. I don’t really pay attention any more to what I put in it. You’ll do better to ask him because if I tell you, it won’t be the same thing. It was all I could do to figure it out the first time around.” I knew she was right. She had given all she had. I let it go. This was my little birthday miracle. Perfect. Leave it alone.
Later, John and I worked together and got the recipe down to something that even I could do. I’ve watched my mother make a million pies, so I knew what “a few, kind of medium potatoes” were, and how much to mix it until the batter was “about right” and when it “looks done” in the oven. Since then, my sisters have begun to collect information on how to get Momma’s hot tamales just right, and Momma’s rolls. Just yesterday, my daughter called me from a thousand miles away to ask how to make Sweet Potato Pie, far away from home. While John texted her a picture of the recipe with all my extra commentary scribbled in the margins, I know she understands that it’s really the love that makes it so good. So glad I could share a Thanksgiving gift of such long tradition.