Sweet Potato Pie originated in the Southern United States where sweet potatoes were used as an alternative to pumpkins in pies. It became an iconic dish at American Beach, an historic African-American beach community in Northeast Florida that was once popular with African-American vacationers during the 20th century segregation era. The practice of layering baked sweet potato slices with butter and sugar in a casserole dish dates back to the Virginia colony, and it reflects the merger of European, indigenous Latin American and African influences. Yet it was George Washington Carver who popularized the sweet potato in the South with nearly four dozen guides that included several recipes such as sweet potato pie. The dish remains a Southern favorite in both African-American and European-American households, particularly as a dessert at holiday feasts.
Sweet potatoes are indigenous to Latin America, and Sweet Potato Pie is a merger of indigenous American crops and European desert cooking styles such as pie-making. The role of the sweet potato in colonial America was first documented in a 1740s Library of Congress article entitled “A Sweet Potato History” which reported that the Virginia colonies grew and consumed sweet potatoes during the mid-1600s, and the crop was especially important for soldiers during the Revolutionary and Civil wars. During that time, sweet potatoes were taken to Europe, Africa and Asia by European traders, and the sweetest varieties were integrated into many European pudding and casserole-style desserts. At the turn of the 20th century, George Washington Carver, most known for his work with peanuts, also studied sweet potatoes for more than 45 years. He traveled throughout the Southern states documenting sweet potato production and consumption, and he authored nearly four dozen guides that included a wide variety of Southern recipes. One of those recipes was ‘sweet yam pie.’ in much of the same way that sweet potatoes are not an actual potato, they were also referred to as ‘yams’ at the time because they resembled the African yam. At around the same time, The Barrett Co. published “Sweet Potatoes and Yams,” as a guide to growing, selling and using sweet potatoes. It included a sweet potato pie recipe described as ideal for the ‘Southern market.’ By the mid-twentieth century, sweet potatoes were a common dessert ingredient throughout the South in both African and European-American homes.
Throughout the Southern United States, sweet potato pie is often served as a dessert during the winter holiday season in place of pumpkin pie which is more common in Northern regions. Ingredients generally include evaporated milk and Eurasian spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.
Sweet potato pie was one of among several sweet potato dishes shared at American Beach, an historic African-American coastal community in Northeast Florida that was once popular with affluent African-American vacationers during the 20th century segregation era. The beach was founded in 1935 by Florida’s first black millionaire and president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, Abraham Lincoln Lewis. American Beach attracted affluent African-Americans from throughout Florida and Georgia. The community grew as Lewis built churches, homes, hotels and nightclubs that stretched over 216 acres. Wealth and multiculturalism in the American Beach cultural community contributed to a distinctive culinary style that reflected African-American, Latin American and European American influences. The wide variety of dishes shared at community gatherings is documented in the American Beach Cookbook which includes a variety of sweet potato dishes and desserts. Although American Beach declined after Florida beaches were desegregated in 1964, it remains an historical and cultural site of significance by the National Park Service.