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Do you eat pumpkin or sweet potato pie at Thanksgiving? Here's the rich history behind both

Pastry chef Carla Jones loads a trio of sweet potato pies onto a tray destined for the oven on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Pastry chef Carla Jones loads a trio of sweet potato pies onto a tray destined for the oven on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.

Are you serving pumpkin or sweet potato pie this Thanksgiving? A look at the history and cultural ties that influence why Americans may prefer one or the other.

They’re both orange.

They’re both sweet with a bit of spice.

But for Americans on Thanksgiving, the meal isn’t done until they dig into a slice of pumpkin or sweet potato pie — and for many, there’s no room for both.

At Ol’ Henry Restaurant in suburban St. Louis, opinions are strong.

“Sweet potato pie. Definitely,” says owner Ada Joyce Taylor.

“Sweet potato pie, because I'm looking for that sweetness in a pie,” says Taylor’s granddaughter and operational manager Audrianna Black.

Taylor started the soul food business almost 10 years ago, naming it after her late husband, Henry Edward Taylor. Today the walls are lined with signed photos and memorabilia, and it’s a well-known destination for those craving sweet potato pie.

“On a normal week, I would say that we go through 15 to 20 sweet potato pies,” says Chef Tracy Stevenson. “During the holiday, I would say 40 or 50.

Both sweet potato and pumpkin pies are American staples with a starchy custard-like filling. Pumpkin pie tends to be more spice heavy than sweet, while sweet potato pie is typically sweeter and lighter.

But the reasons why people choose one over the other often trace back to where the person was raised and their race.

Pastry chef Carla Jones scoops globs of sweet potato pie mixture into shells of pie dough on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Pastry chef Carla Jones scoops globs of sweet potato pie mixture into shells of pie dough on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.

Pastry chef Carla Jones scoops globs of sweet potato pie mixture into a mixing bowl on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Pastry chef Carla Jones scoops globs of sweet potato pie mixture into a mixing bowl on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.

‘Always sweet potato pie’

The origin of both sweet potato and pumpkin pie stretch back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when European settlers brought sweet potatoes and pumpkins back to Europe from the Americas.

With sweet potato pie, settlers may have been trying to replicate the European dish carrot pie, a dessert with layered slices of carrots, according to soul food historian and James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller.

“You'll see recipes in the historical record that have sweet potato pie in layered slices,” Miller said. “They know that they’re sweet and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this natural sweet vegetable that’s orange, I could use this as a substitute for carrot pie.’”

Further evidence, Miller said, is that carrot pie recipes of the time had similar methods and spicing as sweet potato pie.

A note reminds kitchen staff to buy additional pie crusts for their sweet potato pie on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
A note reminds kitchen staff to buy additional pie crusts for their sweet potato pie on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.

LEFT: Pastry chef Carla Jones smooths sweet potato pie mixture into its pie dough on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. RIGHT: A discarded scooper and knife sit in an empty bowl of sweet potato pie mixture on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
LEFT: Pastry chef Carla Jones smooths sweet potato pie mixture into its pie dough on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. RIGHT: A discarded scooper and knife sit in an empty bowl of sweet potato pie mixture on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo.

As colonization expanded across the Americas, enslaved Africans learned how to cook sweet potatoes. Miller said the potatoes may have resonated among enslaved people because they’re somewhat similar to yams, a root vegetable grown in West Africa, But, he added, putting sweet potato into a pie came from European culture.

“It's really the expertise of these enslaved cooks, making something unfamiliar to them to please their slaveholders that eventually gets embraced and adopted,” Miller said. “It's the same with things like fried chicken, barbecue and all these other things that were not necessarily part of the West African food heritage.”

Since then, sweet potato pie has become a hallmark of Black cuisine and common on dinner tables across the South.

For Miller, sweet potato pie means family and culture.

“We've never had a pumpkin pie grace our table, unless somebody who doesn't know us brought one over, if we invited someone,” Miller said with a smile. “And that's on us, right? Because we should have given them a warning not to bring that stuff over. So it's always sweet potato pie.”

Food truck chef Emanuel Garrett places a tray of sweet potato pies into a warming rack on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Food truck chef Emanuel Garrett places a tray of sweet potato pies into a warming rack on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.

‘The perfect Thanksgiving dessert’

But it’s pumpkin pie that plays a central role in the stereotypical portrait of Thanksgiving dinner.

Like sweet potato pie, pumpkin pie’s roots go back to a time when European settlers were experimenting with foods grown locally. They learned how to boil or steam pumpkins that were first domesticated by Native Americans. Early pumpkin pie recipes can be found in both early colonial and French cookbooks.

“The pumpkin pie itself has this whole world history within it, not only the Columbian Exchange, but the spice exchange,” said culinary historian and Roosevelt University Professor Emeritus Bruce Kraig.

A cooked sweet potato pie cools on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
A cooked sweet potato pie cools on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at Ol’ Henry’s Restaurant in Berkeley, Mo. Sweet potato pie is a significant touchstone of African American culture, especially around Thanksgiving.

But an 1827 novel is largely responsible for the dessert’s connection to the holiday. In “Northwood: A Tale of New England,” author and activist Sarah Josepha Hale dedicated a chapter to describing what is the now-quintessential Thanksgiving dinner.

”She virtually invented it, the turkeys, the cranberry sauce and everything,” Kraig said. “And she said pumpkin pie is the American pie.”

In 1863, Hale convinced President Abraham Lincoln to declare a national day of Thanksgiving.

Pumpkin pie remains closely linked to the holiday.

At the Blue Owl Bakery in House Springs, Missouri, owner Kim Byerly says demand is through the roof for the restaurant’s pumpkin pies. They expect to sell several hundred and are expanding by shipping the pies across the country this year.

Cindy Wittu pours pumpkin pie mixture into crusts at The Blue Owl in House Spring, Mo.
Kim Byerly
Cindy Wittu pours pumpkin pie mixture into crusts at The Blue Owl in House Spring, Mo.

Byerly is a fan of pumpkin pie, even if it took her years to actually try it.

“I just like the flavor and the consistency of it,” Byerly said. “You mix it with that whipped cream and it's just like the perfect Thanksgiving dessert.”

The Blue Owl’s bakers also make several variations of the traditional pumpkin pie, including pumpkin gooey butter cheesecake, but so far, no sweet potato pie. For Cindi Wittu, who will help crank out dozens of the desserts, while she’s had both pies, she just prefers pumpkin.

“I’m partial to the spices that are in it,” she said. “It’s not, like, so sweet and then it just reminds me of home, of family.”

For many across the country, that’s why they stick with pumpkin or sweet potato pie — because of the memories they’ve made while eating it.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Chad Davis