All the seasonal hall decking and chestnut roasting that the Christmas season ushered in has fanned an ongoing debate at my house. At the very time of year when visions of sugar plums should be dancing in our heads, my wife and I, good southerners that we are, find ourselves disagreeing (again) about food — specifically, that holiday delicacy of delicacies, sweet potato pie.
This is more than just an academic debate, because for good Southerners, food is serious business. I mean, you just don’t go runnin’ down somebody’s sweet potato pie or banana puddin’ or squash casserole if you’re not prepared to justify your argument.
It’s a Southern thing — talking about food, arguing about whether one variety is superior to another, whether the collard greens at this cafe’ are tastier than those at that other one. We debate barbecue, whether Texas- or Carolina-style is better; we fuss over the right amount of sugar to put in a gallon of iced tea (at our house, it’s a cup and two-thirds); and we even give prizes for the best sweet pickles and scoppernong jelly at the State Fair every fall.
In the South, food is one of the few remaining polite topics for conversation. We’ve seen far too many fights break out when the discussion turns to politics or religion or football. But you criticize the preacher’s wife’s red velvet cake, and you’ll start an intellectual discussion that could go on for hours. Folks down here can spend entire evenings recounting mouth-watering details of long-ago meals at Grandmama’s, remembered with the same wistfulness and emotion that other folks reserve for more intimate matters. Who else but a good southerner could find a plate of fried chicken and mashed potatoes sensual?
It’s that genetic predisposition toward food talk from whence our Great Sweet Potato Pie Debate sprang.
My wife and I both like sweet potato pie. In fact, we LOVE sweet potato pie, so it’s not a matter of pro-pie versus anti-pie. What we disagree on is the style of the pie, the substance of it, the taste. Although we grew up a mere 90 miles apart, both in the heart of the deep South, our families’ philosophies of sweet potato pie were quite different. She likes it plain; I like it fancy.
In Karen’s family, sweet potato pie is an institution, a fixture at any family gathering, usually made by her Maw-Maw, and perfect for topping off a Sunday lunch of chicken pie, stewed okra & tomatoes and butter peas. As best I can tell, the recipe is simple: sweet potatoes, eggs, evaporated milk, and just a scosh of vanilla. Bright orange in color, it’s thoroughbred in every way.
And while it doesn’t hold a candle to Maw-Maw’s carrot cake, it’s good enough — sorta like the way eating at the Cracker Barrel is good enough when you’ve gone a week without home cooking and your Momma’s not there to cook for you. But it’s not what I grew up on.
In my family, mother’s sweet potato pie is more like…well, an extravaganza, full of variety and texture and best served after dinner on a pretty plate with a steaming cup of coffee. The recipe changes from pie to pie, and on any given occasion may include eggs, evaporated milk, vanilla, cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg, cloves, pecans, coconut, orange rind, and of course, sweet potatoes (for taste). Its color is a wizened, noble bronze; it’s a concerto of mouth-watering tastes, the Alpha & Omega of holiday desserts. But that’s just my opinion.
My wife thinks my version is too much. “That’s not a pie,” she says. “It’s a casserole.”
“Call it what you will,” I say. “I thought you liked sweet potato casserole.”
“I do,” she continues: “But what’s the point of having casserole and pie that taste just alike?”
She’s got me there, so I decide to wow her with some philosophical gobbledygook: “Don’t you think our taste in sweet potato pie might be allegorical, an indicator of who we are?” I say. “Could it be that sweet potato says something about our personalities?”
She doesn’t fall for it. “You’ve been in too many psychology classes. Don’t change the subject,” she says.
The truth is, I like to think that my affinity for all that that cinnamon and nutmeg and crumbly, butter-soaked brown sugar in my sweet ‘taters mirrors my psyche, revealing a complicated, creative individual of eclectic interests; a guy who’d rather drown clinging to an interesting theory than float along on the security of a cold fact; a guy who wears bowties and likes living on the edge on occasion.”
She smirks. “Or maybe it just means you’re a sucker for cinnamon.”
“Well,” I say, “Perhaps your affection for Plain Jane pie may reflect your judicious, common sense, straight-shooting manner.” I’m patronizing here, and she knows it.
“Or maybe I just like my style of pie best of all,” she says.
She’s right, of course. As these food arguments go, it’s all a matter of personal taste. Because home cooking doesn’t inpinge on any deeply held moral or political conviction, it’s one issue in the South on which we can discuss ad nauseum, then agree to disagree without rancor.
And the fact is, when it comes to sweet potato pie, you won’t find me turning down either variety.
This holiday season, may all your desserts be worth arguing over.