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.