Sweet potato pie is the one for me

Granddaddy knew.

Granddaddy Simpson wasn’t my natural grandfather. Grandma was good at marrying, and even though Granddaddy had loved Grandma as a young person, they’d each married other people, raised families, and met up again later in life, years after Grandma had stopped chasing Liz Taylor’s title of most married.

Of all the grandfathers, he was the only person I ever called Grandaddy.

Granddaddy loved cooking. A cook in the Navy during WWII, he knew how to prepare food on deadline, for large groups, for fancy soirees and down-home dinners. But he loved, LOVED cooking for us, and he loved making sweet potato pie for us. He had wanted grandchildren for years, somebody to bake for and cook with, somebody to keep him company in the kitchen, on rides to the old family farm, on trips to the country church for all-day Sunday revival, and he picked up where my great-grandmom left off when she could no longer bake her famous sweet potato pies. During summer revival, when we spent the lunch hour outside at picnic tables, he’d top off lunches of cold fried chicken, potato salad, tea and biscuits with a huge sweet potato pie. I didn’t get birthday cake from him; I got birthday sweet potato pie. When my kids were born, Granddaddy baked celebratory pies. High school, college graduations – we ate at my favorite Chinese restaurant, but back home, we had sweet potato pie. Occasionally, he would drive the 45 minutes to our house, bearing a pie, and turn right back around and go home.

Granddaddy eyeballed everything and measured nothing for his pies. He knew when a recipe was right, remembered each list of ingredients, and never, ever wrote down anything. When I first made spaghetti, he tasted it and told me to add a tiny dollop of beef fat to the sauce. I did. It tasted better. I haven’t ever forgotten that direction.

One year at Thanksgiving, I asked Granddaddy to bake a pumpkin pie instead of a sweet potato pie. They looked the same, and a lot of my friends talked about pumpkin pie.

He laughed at me. “Why do you want a pumpkin pie? It won’t taste the same.” But I insisted, and he baked one.

For me, raised on sweet potato – custard, pie, casserole and just plain baked – pumpkin was the worst thing ever. It was simply wrong. That first taste caused me to frown, and the second bite nearly had me in tears. It was so disappointing. I sat at the table, afraid somebody would force me to eat the whole piece of pie, but Granddaddy reached over, slid the plate to his spot and picked up his fork. He winked at me. Nothing else was said. I’m certain the pie was as good as anything you’d get at a fancy dessert place, but he’d cemented my love of the sweet potato.

His recipe for sweet potato pie was simple. Get about 7, 8 fresh sweet potatoes from good Carolina blackjack dirt. Cook ’em down – either bake them or boil them. Granddaddy baked his; my great-grandmom boiled hers. I prefer baked. Peel them and mash them up in a bowl. Get out the mixer and blend with a stick of softened butter, some sugar, a little nutmeg, a few eggs (three, four, depends on the size of the potatoes) and cinnamon, a sprinkle of salt, and the condensed milk. Using a mixer gets the strings out. Add more milk for a custardy pie, less for a firmer pie. Add a tiny bit of baking powder for fluffiness. Or not.

Lay out the pie crust in a greased, floured pan, and prick it with a fork (roll it, prick it). Pour the sweet potato mixture into the crust, and bake at 400 until it looks right. Serve with coffee and eat in the warm, quiet kitchen, beside the old iron stove and away from the fancy crowd in the living room.

Granddaddy passed away in 2001. I don’t often attempt to bake his pies, even though my younger kid loves baking. She doesn’t know it yet, but tomorrow, we are going to visit cousins in McConnells, and I’m bringing home some sweet potatoes.


A kiss on my forehead

Younger Kid was cool from minute one.  When she was born, she opened her eyes for two seconds, SCREAMED, then shut her eyes for the better part of a week. When she opened them, finally, she looked at us and smiled, and I lost my heart.

Younger Kid is snarky, funny and kind. She has a soft spot for babies and older people; if you can take care of yourself, you’re on your own and she will tell you as much. She likes sitting with her adopted grandma in church because they share candy and watch the clock together. She calls both grandmas, her aunties and her great-grandma every Saturday morning. Her idea of fun is an afternoon trip to the Michael’s and a stop at the cooking supply store.

She asks me about my day and really listens. She steals my shoes. She speaks Spanish, Mac and PC. She despises snobs and people who mistreat the less fortunate, the not-as-talented, the ones who need more. She can discuss, quite well, music theory.

At 12, she still wants me to tuck her in and give her a kiss. Sometimes, I’m already in bed when she makes this request. I’ve been fighting what could be the onset of depression, so I’m tired early and can’t always get up immediately. But I do, eventually, and kiss her if she’s already asleep. I mumble “Mommy loves you.” On weekends, she stays up much later, and I will feel her kiss my forehead and tuck me in.

But …

The year before last, she spiraled downward. Grades fell. Her sensory processing disorder seemed to increase, reducing her to a shivering,wailing lump of misery almost daily. She couldn’t understand anything, couldn’t get any information from inside her brain to outside on her test paper, her theses. She snarled at us about everything: chores, homework, medicine, friends. She became obsessed with eating. She sniped at her pals, lost patience with everything, couldn’t follow lists of directions, couldn’t focus. She faked taking her medicine, which made her seizures increase from once every three months to once every six weeks and no doubt made the sensory processing disorder worse simply because of the toll on her brain. She talked about death and suicide. We looked for a counselor.

And she cut herself. One day, she took a tack and carved her initials into her arm. When she told me about it and showed me her arm, I couldn’t do anything but gather her into a hug and pray. A friend says the kid punked me. I say, ploy or not, she did something that screamed out for help.

We found somebody for her to talk to. We switched her seizure meds and her diet, steering us all toward an organic menu. The hubby began disappearing with her more often, taking her to visit his mom, his friends, giving her jobs to do with him. She came home with camera cards full of gorgeous photos. Slowly, her good days began to outnumber the bad; not one was perfect, but she saw a pleasing difference and leaned into the joy of feeling better. She talked to us more and more about her feelings, her thoughts, her attitude. She turned from needing negative reinforcement from us to wanting positive reinforcement from herself. She remained snarky, but she’s working on that. It’s hereditary.

Younger Kid smiled and meant it, a change because for a while, she was simply making muscle movements. Joy didn’t reach her eyes. And she cooked: Chicken cacciatore, red velvet cupcakes, fruit salad, strawberry trifle, rich chocolate brownies, banana pudding, salads, salsas. She tasted a bit of each and gave the rest to neighbors, who began asking for more, which meant that she cooked more – a great thing because it helped her with her sensory issues. She coached and played soccer like her life depended on it. I think it did. We stopped tip-toeing around her and breathed easier.

A few weeks ago, while the hubs was at a weekend gig and the older kid at a sleepover, she decided she wanted to bake something. She went through her stash of ideas, found a simple cookie recipe, and we set out for Target.

When we got back home, we cleared the kitchen counter and I let her take the lead on the cookies while I turned on my my iTunes. As she worked under the kitchen light, we began to talk about how much the evening reminded me of the Saturday nights I spent with my great-grandmom. Mother and my great-grandmom argued constantly when I was a kid – nasty fights that led to slammed doors, threats, police calls and forced me to keep a suitcase packed, just in case I needed to run. On Saturday nights, when Mother went out to party, my great-grandmom would let me turn the radio to the heavy metal and she’d cringe at the Ozzy, but she’d lead me through recipes: egg custards, sweet potato pies, tea cakes, pound cakes. She would talk about growing up in rural S.C. in the early 1900s. She told me about cousins long dead, farm that stretched into two counties, ghosts that lurked.

And I have told those stories to the kids, over and again. This night, Younger Kid listened once more as she measured, mixed and kneaded, dropped flour on the floor, then remeasured without having a meltdown.

“I’m sorry they argued,” she said. “Is that why you don’t like yelling now?”

“Yep,” I replied.

She turned the cookie dough onto waxed paper.

“You know,” she said, “I like having our family together, but this is a good night, Mommy. I’ve got you all to myself.”

She leaned over to kiss my forehead, and 12 years after meeting this smiling wonder, I lost my heart once again.