Some people make a difference in over-the-top, attention-getting ways. They’re the ones making loud proclamations about their philanthropy or funding buildings with their names emblazoned on every hallway and parking garage.
And then there are people who focus on small, quiet acts of human kindness. Rose McGee, 68, is one of them. Through the homespun and heartfelt gesture of making and giving away sweet potato pies, she’s found a way to start tough conversations about the state of race relations in this country.
On the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, McGee and her team of volunteers worked together to bake 91 of her signature-recipe Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, one for each year since King’s birth. And then, just as soon as those pies were packed up and cooled, she welcomed hundreds of area residents to Golden Valley, Minn., where she lives, for a community gathering that was focused on ways to build empathy with one another, no matter what our differences.
Community Comes Together
People from all over the area gather at this annual event. They work in facilitated small groups, listening to one another’s stories and deciding which people in their community most deserve the recognition or comfort of a personally delivered sweet potato pie. In past years, the pies have been taken to public servants, first responders, health professionals, educators and many others who have made an impact on other people’s lives. The pies can be delivered on the MLK holiday itself or at another time that’s convenient for giver and recipient (they’re wrapped to be refrigerator- and freezer-ready).
“There is so much pain, hate, fear and lack of trust in our world. I will not succumb to these negativities.”
“People hear what a good event it is, and our attendance grows every year,” McGee says. “It’s a way to get to know your neighbors and listen to each other’s stories. Participating in these circles creates a sense of empathy. You go back home and do things differently because you’ve had a chance to step into someone else’s story.”
A Day On, Not a Day Off
This year will be the sixth annual gathering of the Sweet Potato Comfort Pie Project. It also marks the 25th anniversary of the MLK Day of Service, the only federal holiday designated to encourage Americans to volunteer to improve their communities. McGee has taken the day’s motto — “A day on, not a day off” — to heart. She relies on a small army of volunteers to ensure the event runs smoothly.
One of those volunteers is retired physician Stuart Borken of Minneapolis. “Many of my retired associates pursued Doctors Without Borders as their way of giving back, but cooking for others is my way,” he says. “Rose McGee and her big heart allow me to help fulfill her dream and fulfill my obligation to give back through what is known in Hebrew as ‘tikun olum,’ which literally means ‘repair of the world.’ I believe it’s our obligation to take care of the world, take care of others and make the world better.”
Another volunteer, Kate Towle, who also lives in Minneapolis, has helped with the Sweet Potato Comfort Pie Project since the beginning. “This is a community event that attracts a broad diversity of people,” she says. “It takes a lot of insight, planning and cultural awareness to achieve that.”
For her part, Towle says she gets a “great feeling” by participating in the event. “Rose has taken the sacred dessert of her people and extended that to all of us. She’s flipped the narrative to allow this important African American symbol to be part of the effort to heal our nation.”
The Perfect Recipe
When she was growing up in still-segregated Jackson, Tenn., McGee was not known for baking sweet potato pie, but achieved renown for her cornbread and corn muffins, which regularly won blue or red ribbons at the county fair.
One day, she says, “the pies began calling me.” Inspired, she baked her inaugural sweet potato pie. “The first one was a flop, but the second time I got it right pretty well. I called my grandmother, and she walked me through the way she made it.”
Over the years, McGee has made changes to the recipe. One example: “In an effort to save time, my grandmother used canned sweet potatoes, but I started using fresh ones. Now I wouldn’t think of using canned.”
During her long career at IBM, McGee traveled often and lived throughout the country, and her recipe changed as she experienced regional variations in the classic dessert.
“I worked for a time in Boca Raton, Florida, and I found that they added citrus, so I began using lemon extract in my recipe,” she says. “I had a colleague who was from North Carolina, and she told me her grandmother used condensed milk instead of evaporated milk, and that gave it another kick. I tasted pie from a Louisiana cook who used nutmeg, so I started adding that.” [See recipe below.]
Comfort and Connection
In addition to conducting the annual MLK Day event, McGee has traveled with her pies to sites of grief and mourning all across the country.
She visited Ferguson, Mo., after the Michael Brown shooting; took pies to the Dakota Access Pipeline protestors at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation; went to the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., after the mass shooting and visited survivors at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh following the mass shooting there.
In recognition of her work, she was awarded a Bush Foundation Fellowship to help further her goal of building racial unity. Fellows receive up to $100,000 to pursue learning experiences that help them develop leadership skills.
In McGee’s case, that work will include tours of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) around the country. The tour kicks off next week, with a visit to New Orleans-based schools Southern University and A&M College, Xavier University of Louisiana and Dillard University. She will travel to HCBUs in Charleston, S.C., in March, and also plans to visit her alma mater, Lane College, in Jackson, Tenn.
“I have two areas of focus for these trips,” McGee says. “I want to explore the divide between youth and elders, and I want to learn more about the power of food culture. I hope these trips will allow me to gain understanding about what new generations are doing to build resiliency and racial unity.”
“The Place to Be”
McGee and her volunteers hope they’ve arrived at a significant and worthwhile way to honor King and his legacy. “He was a leader who did a lot of what Rose is doing now,” Towle says. “He encouraged African Americans to use their strengths to lead everyone to a more peaceful and just society. He also called people to action, and Rose is certainly following that example. We’re hoping this community event becomes ‘the place to be’ on MLK Sunday.”
“In essence, I remain hopeful,” McGee says. “There is so much pain, hate, fear and lack of trust in our world. I will not succumb to these negativities. My purpose is to do all that I can in any way that I can, one pie at a time.”
Recipe for Sweet Potato Comfort Pie
McGee calls this pie “the sacred dessert of black culture.”
4 medium to large sweet potatoes, boiled with skin on until tender, cooled and peeled
1 c. brown sugar
2 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tbsp. ground nutmeg
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
2 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 c. condensed milk
1 tsp. lemon extract
2 unbaked pie shells
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a bowl of an electric mixer, blend sweet potatoes with brown sugar and granulated sugar. Beat in eggs. Add melted butter, then stir in ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla extract, and mix well. Stir in milk. Then stir in lemon extract.
Pour filling into pie shells. Place pie in oven. Immediately reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 60 minutes or until center of pie is firm. Remove from oven. Allow to cool at least 1 hour before eating and at least 2 hours before packaging.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about Rose McGee’s mission and see her volunteer team in action in this video produced by TPT Originals.
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