Yard Sales & Sweet Potato Pie

Going to yard sales is like reading a book of short stories with a general theme, but an unending assortment of characters and situations. The stories you find there are a long random string of pearls strung through a city with a blacktop thread. The stories themselves, like pearls, are grown from small grains of character and truth. They are people and houses, and gardens, and odd neglected treasures that wait patiently in garages and attics, sometimes for years before being discovered once again laid out on tables and sidewalks for a weekend sale. If you pay attention, you will find that each special item you find, each person you meet has that pearl of a story grown around it through a period of years and experience.

I have a pocket full of pearls like that, each one a different size and of a different hue. Some seem nearly perfect and some are just a little cracked and chipped. In their own ways, they seem exactly right, set in a memory or captured in a series of short stories.

It was a favorite neighborhood, with good old trees and a mix of stucco houses with brick walkways. A lot of people will tell you that the rich neighborhoods are the best to yard sail in, but I tend to disagree. In the wealthiest areas, people tend to buy good quality, but hold onto it until its done, or they think because of their zip code their cast off stuff is worth its weight in gold. They often think highly of themselves and attach an unrealistic value to their yard sale items. Of course this is not always true. Treasures, both in people and in booty can be found anywhere and most any yard sale truism should be taken only as a general guide.

My favorite areas tend to be upwardly mobile. The people there often feel the need to buy the newest thing. They are vulnerable to advertising and want to keep up with their neighbors. They also tend to be creative and bright and they can not only have fun stuff, but they can be interesting and educational to talk to.

So, as I said, it was a favorite area in North East Portland where people live in older nice houses with interesting gardens, but have not yet separated themselves from the general population and I came on a sale run by a young black family. The yard was a mature landscape and the curved brick path was shaded by some old and well tended tree… I wish I could remember what kind.

The things they were selling were not of much interest to me, fairly nice electronics that were not old, but also not far from being out of date. That kind of stuff is risky, like computers, they go obsolete so fast that people still want a lot for them, even though their Use By Date is approaching fast. The people there were nice, the sale itself was a little bland, until I noticed a large table off to the side of the front lawn.

There, tucked back under that sweet shade tree was an ancient black woman sitting behind a large folding table that was covered with pies. She was so tiny that her face seemed to be all eyes and smile and her hair was as white as cotton clouds. The table was absolutely packed with a beautiful bounty of pies of various types and sizes. When I looked around, I noticed that the actual yard sale was being largely neglected by the steady stream of arriving visitors. The mostly black customers were walking straight past the tables of yard sale stuff and heading directly towards the old woman and the table of delight.

There was also an obvious attitude of reverence and respect that surrounded that table like light breaking through a cloud cover. The old woman was sitting erect and alert with delightful pride as if she were the queen of the neighborhood and as people approached, they would slow down a bit and take on a hesitant air, for all the world as if they were approaching royalty.

Picture borrowed from Dave, The BurghFeeder
Swee Po Pie

I gathered that this was a once a year deal that people waited for with anticipation. Famous for her pies and as old as fire and food, she had agreed to grace the community with her magnificent pies every year at the family’s annual yard sale. I imagined that friends and family came from miles for this traditional event and I realized I had stumbled into something quite extraordinary.

Finally, when there was a break in the line, I approached the ancient culinary muse and said, “I would like to buy, two of your sweet potato pies.” I don’t know exactly why I asked for two… I think I was a little nervous before her majesty and wanted her to know that I knew how important a thing this was.

So, she leaned forward, tilted her head to the side slightly and fixed me a birdlike stare, and then she said… “You… Want to buy a Sweet Potato Pie?” As if I were crazy to even suggest such a thing. I responded as if explaining the obvious, “My Mama was from North Carolina.”

The old lady leaned back and smiled and said, “Oh all right then!” and proceeded to sell me two, absolutely beautiful, deep reddish brown, still warm… Sweet Potato Pies.

Here before you, I will admit, that I had never held in my hand, much less tasted, a sweet potato pie. In fact, although my mother was in fact from North Carolina and did in fact make some extraordinary pies, I had never really even heard of such a thing. Mince meat pies, pumpkin pies, apple pies, but sweet potato pies had never really entered my consciousness.

Well… let me tell you something… A really good sweet potato pie is to pumpkin pie like a Kobe beef steak is to hamburger. It is like the finest Lung Ching green tea from China to a Lipton tea bag. The color is sublime, the texture superior, and the taste, complex and profound. It was like nothing I’ve ever had before. The crust was crunchy with just a hint of salt and no dry aftertaste of flour. Give me a crust like that and I’d gladly eat it straight. Those pies were a revelation! They were like standing on the edge of precipice with no fear.

So I decide that I have to know more about these things. I think, I’ll go back and talk to that old lady and I’ll prostrate myself at her feet like an acolyte and I’ll beg for her recipe. I’ll get her to tell me her story. I’ll revel in her wisdom. I’ll study the secret arts of pie. I’ll chop wood , carry water…

But the reality was, that with out the yard sale and the crowd of cars parked out front, everything looked different and for the life of me I could never find that house or that lady again. I drove up and down the blocks in that area for weeks. Every time there was a yard sale in that neighborhood I would ask the homeowner, “Do you know where the old lady lives who sells the pies?” but no one ever did. However, something else interesting did happen.

No Pie like Swee Po Pie.

I would say, “That lady had the best Sweet Potato Pies in the world!” and people would tell me about how their mother, or neighbor, or aunt had a wonderful recipe for sweet potato pie, and they’d run back into the house to get it. And then they’d tell me about some other great secret family held recipe and sometimes they’d even bring me out some treat recently baked in the oven of nostalgia and love. There were cranberry lemon muffins and Jasmine pearl tea. There were scones and blackberry pie made from the biggest blackberries I had ever seen, once there was back yard barbecue that was its own revelation and a whole different story.

Every Sweet Potato Pie recipe was different. There were some that rang true, like when I was told that instead of lard or butter, you should use bacon grease to make the crust crunchy and there were some that I rejected out of hand, like when I was told to get a store bought crust or pick up canned yam as the filling, but regardless of the recipe or how many times we tried, nothing ever came close to that first yard sale epiphany.

I went into Portland to a black bakery off Martin Luther King Blvd called Mother Dears and I asked the beautiful black woman there to tell me about Sweet Potato Pie. Her name was Anorvia and she was tall and striking and as she took a small Sweet Potato Pie out of the display case, she told about her how she had learned to make the pies at her mother’s knee. She showed me the black crepe draped portrait of her mother above the door to the kitchen and drew me in with the story of how those pies had been sold at community gatherings to build the neighborhood church. I envisioned Pie as a part of the blood and life of the church and the people.

Picture borrowed from BaltimOregon
Gentlemen like the dark ones

And then, beautiful Anorvia leaned forward and said in an intimate and personal moment… “Always get the dark ones… Gentlemen always like the dark ones the best.” To say that I blushed is putting it mildly.

I went to talk to Al, who I have mentioned in a different story and was the old black Maitre de at the hotel I worked at then, and a man of grace and wisdom and I asked him, “Al… Tell me about Sweet Potato Pie.”

Al, as was his custom, thought about it for a few moments, heaved a deep sigh and then said in a low soft voice… “Ah yes… Swee Po Pie. That goes deep in our culture.” Then he sat there for quite a long time and finally said, “Always get the dark ones… They’s caramelized and are sweeter.”

The pies from Mother Dears were good and it’s true, the darker ones were sweeter, but they were not as good as the old lady’s from the yard sale. It’s been years now and I’ve never found a Swee Po Pie as perfect as that first one. I finally gave up hoping to stumble on that yearly pie sale again, I hate to think it, but she was as old as a giant oak then and I’m sure she’d be well over a hundred by now.

No Pie like Swee Po Pie.

But there it is… and it’s why I go to yard sales. I was so privileged to meet her for even a moment and that first sweet taste of Sweet Potato Pie that rocked my world and led me on from lesson to lesson, from story to story.

3 Responses to “Yard Sales & Sweet Potato Pie”
  1. Ah. You caught a glimpse of sweet potato pie paradise. Consider yourself lucky – some never will. Nice post

  2. Kate says:

    Ah! These are the good things in life. A fine story. Thanks for sharing.

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