As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approached this year, the idea for making a traditional soul food dish kept coming to mind. Not that I’ve ever made one, but I kept thinking back to a recipe that appeared in a cookbook I once helped compile for an inner-city youth recreation center in Boston. (That, by the way, was in 1981, pre-computers, when the whole book was typewritten.)
The recipe in question was one for sweet potato pie submitted by Tom Lindsey, a wonderful African-American gentleman I came to know ever so slightly through church and work connections. Although Tom was not more than a casual acquaintance, he exuded class at every turn, including when he picked up his trumpet, which he did for occasional work parties (click on the bottom right arrow in the photo box above to see a photo of Tom on trumpet). Even an untrained ear like my own could tell he was an accomplished jazz musician.
It wasn’t until Tom’s passing in 2002 that I really learned about his fascinating life story in a prominently displayed obituary in the Boston Globe. It said that Tom was born in Sylacuaga, Ala., where he lived in a one-room home and attended a one-room school. His mother, who no doubt was the source of the sweet potato pie recipe, was a domestic who bought him his first trumpet. Although he dropped out of school after the eighth grade, he rode his trumpet to the musical heights, playing gigs with such jazz greats as Fats Waller, Benny Carter, and Coleman Hawkins, with whom he played on the legendary “Body and Soul” recording made in 1939.
He was not one to toot his career credentials. Besides his modesty, his daughter said her father was so “dignified and intelligent … everybody thought he was a professor.”
In making Tom’s Sweet Potato Pie, I felt I was honoring a wonderful guy.
To my knowledge I’d never eaten a sweet potato pie so I really wasn’t sure what to expect or what the challenges I might encounter.
Tom’s recipe says it makes two 9-inch pies, but I kept wondering if the listed ingredients were sufficient for that. I halved the recipe as best as I could, but felt like the pie filling could have filled up the pan more. Using an 8-inch pan would have helped.
The recipe calls for a can of sweet potatoes, but I couldn’t find any, so resorted to what I assume is the closest equivalent, a can of yams.
As for the crust, I was tempted to reach for the box of Pillsbury pie crust I had in the fridge, since Tom’s recipe doesn’t provide crust instructions. That didn’t seem right, though, so I turned to Fannie Farmer and made a shortening-based crust. It was OK, but I probably should have used butter
A final confession: I forgot the coconut until the pie was already in the oven, so I can’t attest to what difference that makes.
On the whole, I judged it a worthy and tasty effort – sort of a cross between a pumpkin pie and a chess pie.
My wife found it sweeter than her liking, but that’s surely due to the Southernness. The pie has a nice color, texture, and with a dollop of whipped cream, I could see it making the perfect way to celebrate MLK Day … and my “friend” Tom.
Tom’s Sweet Potato Pie
Makes 2 pies
1 17-ounce can sweet potatoes
3/4 cup butter (1-1/2 sticks)
1-1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger (optional)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 cup shredded coconut
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon extract
3/4 cup Carnation milk (5-1/2 ounce can)
1 1-1/2-ounce box raisins
1 8-1/2-ounce can crushed pineapple
Melt butter in large saucepan. Mash potatoes in melted butter. Combine dry ingredients. Add to mixture. Combine eggs and milk. Add to mixture. Add flavorings. Beat mixture by hand. Stir in remaining ingredients. Place in two 9-inch pie shells.
Bake at 325 degrees F. for 1-1/2 hours, or until pleasingly browned.
Ross Atkin edits the Monitor's Daily News Briefing and bakes treats for the newsroom staff every Monday.
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