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Food fight: Pumpkin vs. sweet potato pie

Sweet potavs. pumpkpie. Sweet potadressed up look like it's doing battle w/ lil pumpkin. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Sweet potato vs. pumpkin pie. Sweet potato dressed up to look like it's doing battle w/ a lil pumpkin. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 15, 2012 6:03AM



What’s that orange pie gracing your Thanksgiving table? Whether it’s pumpkin or sweet potato may depend on your heritage, your palate or, perhaps, your politics.

President Barack Obama has gone on record saying sweet potato pie is his favorite.

In our completely unscientific Facebook poll, fans of sweet potato pie ranked about even with those of pumpkin pie and those who either love both or can’t stand either. Some people said they couldn’t really tell the difference.

“Do I have to back a side?” says Paula Haney, proprietor of Hoosier Mama Pie Co., 1618 W. Chicago, who bakes both. She’s offering pumpkin for Thanksgiving and sweet potato for Christmas.

“The pumpkin is more about the spices,” Haney says.

“Sweet potato pie is more about the sweet potato,” although she adds bourbon, orange zest and black pepper along with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to hers.

In traditional pumpkin pie recipes such as the one that’s graced cans of pumpkin from Morton, Ill.-based Libby’s since 1950, the seasonings — typically cinnamon, ginger and cloves — tend to be intense, and the texture dense and creamy. Sweet potato pies often are lighter, both in spices and texture, less smooth, and more likely to be flavored with molasses.

But, of course, there are hundreds of recipes for both, and many make the two ingredients interchangeable, along with butternut squash and even mashed carrots. The VeryBestBaking.com website from Libby’s parent company, Nestle, features more than two dozen pumpkin pie variations, including low-fat, gluten-free, no-bake, crustless, whole wheat and versions laced with bourbon, cream cheese, whipped topping, sour cream, apples, orange zest, nuts and more.

Megan Miller, co-owner of Bang Bang Pie Shop, 2051 N. California, says Chicagoans have more expectations of what pumpkin pie should be like.

“Everybody’s had a pumpkin pie,” agrees Haney.

Miller feels freer to experiment with sweet potato pie. Her version contains traditional pumpkin pie spices, but she tops it with house-made, cayenne pepper laced maple marshmallows.

She’s hard pressed to choose which she likes best, she says. “Honestly, I can’t decide,” yet pumpkin went on her three-pie regular menu early this fall, whereas sweet potato will only be offered for Thanksgiving.

“I just thought everyone was getting excited about pumpkin pie,” she says. “It gives me happy feelings because it’s pumpkin.”

Pumpkin pie, popular across the country, dates back at least till the 17th century, and originated in Europe, where the New World squash found its way into recipes from the Middle Ages that originally used gourds.

Pumpkin was one of the few post-Columbian produce items imported from the Americas to be adopted enthusiastically at its introduction — as a better-tasting counterpart to more familiar vegetables.

Sweet potato pie came later, an American invention. Like pumpkins, sweet potatoes were brought to Europe by 16th-century New World explorers. From there, they found their way to West Africa, where they were put to uses like those of the yam, an indigenous root vegetable. (The orange vegetable sometimes called a “yam” in the United States is really a variety of sweet potato.) It appears to have been African cooks in the American South who first put sweet potatoes into pies, and even today, sweet potato pie remains more popular in the South.

“I had a lot of anxiety when I was making the sweet potato pie,” says Haney, who didn’t grow up eating it — her father, though reared in the South, hated it. Haney, a pastry chef trained in French technique, who worked at fine-dining restaurants such as the erstwhile Trio in Evanston, says that when she tried her effort out on a knowledgeable friend, her version was judged too smooth.

Jimmy Ferguson of Jimmy Jamm Sweet Potato Pies, 1844 W. 95th St., says classic sweet potato pies often can be stringy. “I don’t like that.”

One of the secrets of her signature pie, she says, is to “de-string” the tubers, which she does by using a mixer to puree them. That’s the only hint she’ll share. Her business partners — her husband, Harold, and her nephew, Adam Jackson — are the only others who know the recipe her late father, Rev. James C. Jackson, a chef, bequeathed her when he was dying.

Ferguson, naturally, advocates sweet potatoes over pumpkin. Her shop, which started in 2006 with the pie, now offers some 50 sweet potato dishes, ranging from sweet potato ice cream to savory dishes such as a loaded baked sweet potato and a sweet potato pot pie.

Jimmy Jamm sells 1,500 sweet potato pies each Thanksgiving, says Harold Ferguson. To get one for Thanksgiving, order by Saturday or you’re out of luck till after the holiday.

Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.



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