The English Origins of Sweet Potato Pie

The sweet potato is native to South America and Christopher Columbus records its discovery in his journals from his fourth voyage (to Yucatan and Honduras). Columbus introduced the sweet potato to Spain around 1493 and by 1500 they were an established crop in Europe. Sweet potatoes were ‘enormously popular in sixteenth century Europe, especially England’.[1] Sweet potato enthusiasts included Sir Francis Drake and King Henry VIII, whose favourite foods included heavily spiced sweet potato pies.[2] Sweet potatoes even make an appearance in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (‘Let the sky rain potatoes…’).

Sweet potatoes were grown in Spain and, at considerable expense, imported to England, where the climate was unsuitable for their cultivation. Attempts to grow them in England had been unsuccessful, with, as John Parkinson writes in his Paradisi in sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629), ‘the roote rather decaying than increasing in our country’.[3] ‘Spanish potatoes’ continued to appear in English recipes, with Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1727), for example, including recipes for a ‘sweet lamb pye’ and a ‘sweet chicken pye’ which called for sweet potatoes.[4] Hannah Glasse likewise includes ‘To make a very fine sweet lamb or veal pye’ (made with ‘Spanish potatoes’) in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (1747).[5] However, generally there was a switch in English cookery from the sweet potato to the white potato, which grew well in England. Where once sweet potatoes were mixed into spiced pies and puddings, it now became more common to find sweet root vegetable dishes made using potatoes, carrots, and artichokes.

An early printed recipe can be found in the 1685 edition of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (first published in 1660). May’s recipe is titled ‘To bake Potatoes, Artichocks in a Dish, Pye, or Patty-pan either in Paste [pastry], or little Pasties’ and reads as follows:

Take any of these roots, and boil them in fair water, but put them not in till the water boils, being tender boil’d, blanch them, and season them with nutmeg, pepper, cinamon, and salt, season them lightly, then lay on a sheet of paste [pastry] in a dish, and lay on some bits of butter, then lay on the potatoes round the dish, also some eringo roots, and dates in halves, beef marrow, large mace, slic’t lemon, and some butter, close it up with another sheet of paste, bake it, and being baked, liquor it with grape-verjuyce, butter and sugar, and ice it with rose-water and sugar.[6]

Robert Smith’s Court Cookery: or, The Compleat English cook (1725) includes a number of recipes for dessert dishes made using potatoes, carrots, and artichokes.[7] Smith, states the book, was a cook to King William III, the Duke of Buckingham, and others amongst the nobility and gentry of England, for whom his book is intended (it opens with the words ‘To the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain…’). Smith’s recipe for pies made using artichokes or potatoes calls for the tubers to be boiled and sliced, seasoned with mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and salt, then mixed with the marrow of three bones, fruit, and preserves. We also find two recipes for carrot puddings, as well as a recipe for ‘An admirable Potatoe Pudding’:

Take two pound of white potatoes, boil and peel them, and beat them in a mortar, so small, as to not be discovered what they are; then take half a pound of butter, and mix it with the yolks of eight eggs, and the whites of three; beat them very well, and mix in a pint of cream, and half a pint of sack [sweet fortified wine], a pound of refined sugar, with a little salt and spice, and bake it.

As well as containing two recipes calling for sweet potatoes, Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1727) also includes a recipe titled ‘To make a Carrot Pudding’:

Take raw carrots, and scrape them clean, grate them with a grater without a back. To half a pound of carrot, take a pound of grated bread, a nutmeg, a little cinnamon, a very little salt, half a pound of sugar, and half a pint of sack, eight eggs, a pound of butter melted, and as much cream as will mix it well together; stir it and beat it well up, and put it in a dish to bake; put puff-paste [puff pastry] at the bottom of your dish.[8]

Later in the same century, yams imported from the West Indies started to be incorporated into English root vegetable pies and puddings. Elizabeth Raffald’s book The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) includes a recipe for ‘Yam pudding’:

Take a middling white yam, and either boil or roast it, then pare off the skin and pound it very fine, with three quarters of a pound of butter, half a pound of sugar, a little mace, cinnamon, and twelve eggs, leaving out half the whites, beat them with a little rose water. You may put in a little citron cut small, if you like it, and bake it nicely.[9]

Hannah Glasse included this recipe in later editions of her seminal work The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy.[10] Also found in The Art of Cookery are three potato pie recipes, one of which reads as follows:

Take two pounds of white potatoes, boil them soft, peel and beat them in a mortar, or strain them through a sieve till they are quite fine; then mix in half a pound of fresh butter melted, then beat up the yolks of eight eggs and three whites, stir them in, and half a pound of white sugar finely pounded, half a pint of sack, stir it well together, grate in half a large nutmeg, and stir in half a pint of cream, make a puff-paste and lay all over the dish and round the edges; pour it in the pudding, and bake it of a fine light brown.[11]

These cookery books were not only popular in England, but were also hugely popular across the Atlantic, because ‘British cookery dominated food preparation in the English-speaking colonies in North America’.[12] As ‘most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks’,[13] initially imported from England, and later republished in America.[14] Amongst these books, those of Elizabeth Raffald and Hannah Glasse were two of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.[15] Indeed, in the case of Glasse:

Her cookbook was on Martha Washington’s bookshelf; Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin both had copies as well, with Franklin enjoying it so much that he brought it with him to France and had some of the recipes translated so he could keep eating Glasse’s food while abroad.[16]

The root vegetable pies found in the works of Raffald and Glasse would, therefore, have well-known in colonial America, as well as in the post-independence period. The recipes include mashed root vegetables, butter, eggs, sugar, cream, nutmeg, and cinnamon. When we look at American recipes for root vegetable pies made using sweet potato, pumpkin, and squash, it quickly becomes clear that these are variants of the original English recipes, incorporating ingredients from the New World. The Northern cookery book Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches by Eliza Leslie (1837), for example, includes recipes for pumpkin, squash, yam, sweet potato, and potato puddings.[17] All of them are variations on a theme – using eggs, butter, cream, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Southern cookery books likewise feature recipes for root vegetable pies, with sweet potato becoming particularly popular as time went by (unsurprising, given the South’s climate is ideal for their cultivation). Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824), for example, contains a ‘sweet potato pudding’ recipe that blends the approaches of Raffald and Glasse (and earlier English authors), incorporating mashed sweet potato, eggs, sugar, butter, brandy, lemon peel, and citron. ‘Irish potato pudding is made in the same manner’, notes Randolph, ‘but is not so good’.[18]

Skipping forward a few decades, an Alabama cookery book titled The Gulf City Cook Book (1878), for example, offers the following recipe for sweet potato pie:

One pound of potatoes boiled and rubbed smooth, half pound of sugar, a small cup of cream, one fourth pound of butter, four eggs; nutmeg and lemon to suit the taste; bake in a crust.[19]

Minnie C. Fox’s The Blue Grass Cook Book (1904), offers a collection of recipes popular among the wealthy elite of Kentucky, many sourced from black cooks.[ref] The book offers two recipes for sweet potato pie. The first recipe uses butter, cream, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, while the second includes lemon rind, brandy, and ‘fine bits of citron’.[20]

Last but not least, it’s worth also looking at the sweet potato pie recipe found in Abby Fisher’s What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881).[21] Fisher’s book is of historical interest, as Fisher was a former slave and plantation cook, and her book is one of the first cookery books written by an African American. Perhaps we might find something more unusual in her sweet potato pie recipe? Well, yes and no. Fisher’s recipe does incorporate orange juice and orange peel – where most other sweet potato pie recipes of the citrus variety make use of lemons – but even here this simply harks back to the recipes of Hannah Glasse, whose second and third potato pudding recipes include ‘the juice of a Seville orange’ and ‘orange peel cut thin’.[22]

King Henry VIII of England dined on sweet potato pies in the sixteenth century, and the seventeenth century recipes of King William III’s cook include a potato pudding seasoned with mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. The recipes of English cookery books that were hugely popular in colonial and post-independence America likewise include recipes for sweet puddings and pies made using potatoes and other root vegetables. When these recipes are compared with recipes for sweet potato and pumpkin pies found in cookery books of both the northern and southern states, we see that they are clearly derived from the cookery of England. Sweet potato pie is today seen as quintessentially Southern, and mass produced versions can be purchased cheaply in American grocery stores, yet it started its life as a luxury dish found on the tables of royalty and the gentry of England.

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