In 1868, the Delaware State Directory said this of Southern Delaware sweet potatoes: “the sweet potatoes of southern Delaware have a richness and a sweetness of flavor, which we do not find in the Carolina potato or even those grown on the rich soils of Texas.” They were a major crop in the Delmarva region until 1940 and the arrival of black rot.
As a holiday pie on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Delaware, they persevere and sometimes even outshine the classic pumpkin pie.
Although not on the scale of the sweet potato crop’s heyday, steady growth has made farming sweet potatoes a viable business for smaller farms. Today, from bright orange to creamy white (and sometimes purple), sweet potatoes are cut into fries, glazed and dotted with marshmallows, or baked into biscuits. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, however, all thoughts of sweet potatoes turn to the holiday dessert table.
For many families with roots in the Delmarva peninsula, “pie season” comes with anticipation, an inherited family recipe, revered family pie-makers, and a strict set of rules. For the family of Yvonne Jefferson Atkinson, a tried-and-true recipe is the pie’s only possible foundation.
“Do not bring something you’re trying out,” she advises. Or, if you do, be ready to have your pie-making skills under heavy scrutiny. “It’s the pie-baking equivalent of ‘who made the potato salad’,” she said.
To ensure that the tradition continues, the family’s current champion pie-maker is training the next generation of family bakers.
Likewise, the family of Yolanda Acree follows an inherited recipe. “Sweet potato pie is a must for Thanksgiving and Christmas, based on my grandmother’s recipe,” she said. “My mother is the go-to- person for sweet potato pie in our family.”
For the family of Cordelia Price, with roots in both Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, sweet potato pie is served at Thanksgiving and Christmas. “My mom and one of my sisters-in-law are the pie-makers, each using their own recipe. Sweet potato biscuits are also a part of our family tradition.”
Regina “Missy” Bennett, a lifelong Queen Anne’s County resident, loves sweet potato pie. “It’s not just for holidays,’ she insists. “Any time is a good time for sweet potato pie.”
And unlike many pie lovers, she likes her slice ice cold. She also loves cooking and baking. Bennett, whose home is the gathering place for Sunday and holiday dinners, learned to cook from her mother, Mildred Jean Cooper. When it comes to baking, she is known to stay up late at night filling a cookie sheet, a cupcake pan or a pie pan. With Christmas a week away, every space on her kitchen counters is certain to be filled with something sweet.
If you’d like to try your hand at this holiday delicacy, follow MIssy Bennett’s recipe and create a new holiday tradition for your own family.
Regina “Missy” Bennett’s Sweet Potato Pie
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Premade Pie Crust:
2 cups sweet potatoes; cooked, peeled and mashed
½ cup softened, unsalted butter
1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Mix together sweet potatoes, sugar and butter. Mix until there are no lumps.
Add the milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and salt. Blend until evenly combined.
Pour into pie shell.
Bake in pre-heated oven 40 to 45 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the center is set.