As Thanksgiving approaches I wondered how pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie became holiday staples. Wikipedia reported pumpkin pie recipes first appeared in Canadian and American cookbooks in the early 19th century and serving pumpkin pie became a Thanksgiving Day custom. Lydia Maria Child memorialized pumpkin pie in her Thanksgiving poem (1844), “Over the River and Through the Wood.”
“Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? Hurrah for the pumpkin pie.”
In another example, The Christmas-themed song “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” sung by Perry Como that reached No. 8 on the Billboard charts, references a Pennsylvania man hankering for home and drooling about gorging on pumpkin pie.
The post-Civil War era ignited a culinary war. The southern states resisted pumpkin pie; they viewed it as another slap, which Yankee culture imposed on the South. After all, by tradition the Southeastern region preferred sweet potato pie.
During my 28-year career as a firefighter/paramedic, activity and anticipation escalated during holidays like Thanksgiving. Firefighters collaborated with the fire station cooks to prepare food quantities sufficient to feed a small city, which included bountiful desserts. However, to my noggin shaking, head scratching and bewildering disbelief, sweet potato pie — my favorite — was always omitted. What an outrage.
Most Akron firefighters worked 24-hour shifts and were off duty for 48 hours, an arrangement that made it convenient to work — in Akron Fire jargon — a B-job. I worked as a paramedic for an ambulance company that provided non-emergency and emergency services. I remember discussing the differences between pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie with my younger co-workers. They exclaimed in unison pumpkin pie was better than sweet potato pie.
They were aghast — did I actually believe the issue warranted debate? I believed their misplaced confidence in pumpkin pie’s superiority was spurious for the most obvious reason: They had never tasted sweet potato pie. Gee, don’t you think that’s important? Therefore, I devised a plan based on the concept fight fire with fire; however, I resolved to fight pie with pie.
Imagine, famed ring announcer Michael Buffer using his mellifluous voice to introduce this colossus, pumpkin pie versus sweet potato pie. It would sound like this, “Tonight we are going to witness the most anticipated match in history. Are you ready? Aaaaarrrrreee you ready? ladies and gentlemen lllleeeetttt’s get ready to rumble.
“In the red corner we have pumpkin pie garnished with Cool Whip, and in the red corner we have sweet potato pie.”
Sweet potato pie glares at pumpkin pie for using PEDs — palate enhancing dessert topping.
My late mother-in-law, Carlene Pennington, haled from Mississippi, the Magnolia State. And she reigned in the kitchen. Her turkey and dressing were scrumptious; they compelled you to haul off and bash King Kong if he even threatened to sample the dish. I explained to her I worked with some young people who’d been deprived — they’re never savored a homemade sweet potato pie, especially one baked by Ms. Pennington.
Prior to bringing in Ms. Pennington’s sweet potato pie, I asked my co-workers, “Do you pile Cool Whip on your pumpkin pie to make it eatable?”
“Yes,” they replied.
I said, “Anyone who dared plop Cool Whip on sweet potato pie forfeited their sweet potato pie lover’s card, for the treachery.”
I also cracked if you grabbed a spatula you could separate the congealed pudding from the leathery pie crust with a wrist flick and splat it onto the ceiling.
I brought Ms. Pennington’s sweet potato pie into work for my co-workers to experience the difference. They agreed the sweet potato pie tasted delectable and, most revealing, not one person clamored for Cool Whip. Twenty years later, I see my co-workers licking their fingers, scrounging the pie tin for pie crust crumbs.
The bell clangs, Buffer roars, “The winner by knockout, still undefeated, still the champion, sweet potato pie.”
Marc D. Greenwood is a Camp Hill resident and weekly columnist for The Outlook.