The holiday season is here, Greater Cincinnatians! It means spending quality time with our favorite relatives, beloved family traditions, gifts galore, and festive feasts.
No matter where you dine, you’ll find favorites like dressing, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, and the grand finale: pie.
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But what’s the official pie of the season: Pumpkin or sweet potato? According to the Herald Mail-Media, your pie preferences may depend on two factors: where you’re from and your family traditions. if you are on Twitter Over the last decade, you know the debate between the two autumnal desserts is a long-standing topic.
But where did the rivalry start?
Origins of the Pumpkin vs. Sweet Potato Debate
Tracing the roots of this decades-old rivalry is no easy task. It can be easy to associate the debate with the stereotype that pumpkin pie is eaten by white people, primarily in the Northeast, and sweet potato pie is eaten by black people, primarily in the South. But that would be a simplification of the complicated history of two iconic American desserts.
First, let’s start with the origins of sweet potato pie. According to The Washington Post, sweet potatoes were first cultivated in Peru. Shipments of the original crop were sent to West Africa and Western Europe by Spanish traders during the 16th century.
Although West African cooks never paid much attention to the sweet potato, their European counterparts did. Southern Kitchen reports that other root crops, such as cassava and yams, are more widely used, especially in savory dishes.
The Washington Post reports that the sweet potato, once called the “white man’s yam,” became popular in Europe and America during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Black and white Southern cooks implemented sweet potatoes into their culinary repertoire because they were easier to grow than pumpkins due to the warm climate of the region. In turn, cooks from the north preferred to use the more accessible gourd.
Because many enslaved Africans did not have access to pumpkins or yams, they worked with sweet potatoes and were able to create new recipes reminiscent of home. Now this innovation has become a staple of black American culture.
But where did pumpkin pie originate? Well, the decadent pastry shares the same history as its sweet potato doppelgänger.
According to the History Channel, pumpkins also originated in Central America and were brought to Europe in the 1500s. A decade later, pumpkins gained popularity with New England settlers, who traveled to America on the Mayflower in 1620.
By the 18th century, the importance of Thanksgiving in New England increased with the region’s dessert of choice: pumpkin pie.
But the debate was hardly settled.
According to The Washington Post, “After liberation, ethnic and regional divisions between pumpkin and sweet potato pie were highlighted in the national and regional media.”
The History Channel reports that in the mid-19th century, pumpkin pie became a frequent subject in the written works of several well-known abolitionists, such as Sarah Josepha Hale and Lydia Maria Child.
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His love for pie, and former President Abraham Lincoln’s official Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863, made Southern states feel that their preferences were being replaced by Northern traditions.
In short, the North (specifically New England) was team pumpkin pie. But Southern and black communities were sweet potato pie lovers.
While the descendants of enslaved people have formed communities across the country, the love and loyalty to sweet potato pie remains the same, as has the decades-long rivalry between the two delicious desserts.
Difference Between Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Pie
According to The Great Bake, pumpkin and sweet potato pie are commonly mistaken for each other because of their similar color, flavor, and texture. Competing pies are also known to have similar spices such as cinnamon, ginger and cloves.
Despite the similarities there are notable differences. For example, The Great Bake states that sweet potato pie typically has a lighter filling, thicker texture and sweeter flavor, while pumpkin pie is denser and contains more spices. The Herald Mail-Media reports that raw pumpkin is usually bland, so spices like cinnamon and nutmeg help flavor it.
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As its name suggests, sweet potatoes have a naturally sweet, bold flavor. That’s why fewer spices are used in sweet potato pie than in gourd pie.
Another notable difference between the two Thanksgiving treats is whether pumpkin pie is made using fresh, pureed, canned or roasted pumpkin. While sweet potato pie can be made using canned sweet potatoes or yams, it almost always consists of fresh vegetables. If fresh sweet potatoes are substituted with canned alternatives, pie purists may question the legitimacy of the dessert and the person responsible for making it.
The Enquirer newsroom votes for their favorite pie
Now that we all share a common knowledge of both pies, I need to know which dessert reigns supreme. So, I decided to bake one of each pie and assemble a panel of qualified taste testers (i.e. my coworkers) to settle the debate once and for all.
After entering the newsroom with his homemade pie, I voted him my favorite. Decision?
Believe it or not, sweet potato pie takes the cake, 8-2! When I first pitched this story, my team looked at me with confused eyes. Imagine my surprise when most of them told me they had never heard of sweet potato pie, let alone tasted a morsel of the delicious pastry.
Well, I’m proud to report that I have officially converted The Enquirer newsroom to sweet potato lovers. A pie made by my slave ancestors, beloved by members of my community that evokes feelings of nostalgia and home, is the champion of this spirited competition. Sweet Potato Pie Outranks Pumpkin Pie, Hoorah!