My mother passed on to me a recipe for sweet potato pie that her mother, my grandmother Lucille, had likely had passed on to her by her mother, my great-grandmother Civvie. I have memories of my mom baking batches of these pies for both Thanksgiving and Christmas and giving them away as gifts for co-workers, neighbors, and relatives. For a month, our freezer would be filled with these sweet potato pies. As I got older and showed an interest in how to make this delectable creation, my mom brought me into the kitchen, directing me to strain the crushed pineapple, crack eggs, mix in flour. She eventually tested my cooking sensibilities – nothing was ever measured – by having me taste the batter to determine if it was ready yet and if not, what was needed: more brown sugar? more karo syrup? more cinnamon? more flour if it was too soupy? more milk if it was too stiff?
Once I got on my own, I called my mom and asked her for the recipe. I carefully wrote down the ingredients, her guesstimates as to how much of each was needed, her directions on the order in which to add the ingredients in the batter, and finally the proper oven setting and length of baking time. The first time I set out to bake the family sweet potato pie, I hit a homerun. Well, almost. The crust got burnt on a couple (then she told me the foil trick). Nevertheless, they were tasty. I would make them again, but not annually because it was a heck of a lot of work and there weren’t enough people in my life worthy of that kind of energy output. LOL – I’m just being honest.
Those sweet potato pies were glorious. Honestly I’ve never tasted anyone else’s recipe that even comes close to being as good as the Lazarus Family recipe (nope, not even Patti’s!). I want to make them again and really had an unction to do so this past holiday season. But I didn’t bake them this year. Why? Because about 7 years ago, I discovered I was allergic to eggs, pineapple, and cow-based dairy – key ingredients in the recipe [just trust me on the pineapple]. When I first got the lab tests back that showed this, the first thing I mourned for was this sweet potato pie. Ever since, I’ve been thinking of a way to alter the recipe to make it something I could eat and not get sick from (I now understand why I never felt quite right after my annual pie gorging as a kid). I’ve done this with other dishes: I make my macaroni and cheese without eggs and although I use 2% milk, I’ve found homeopathic aids that mute the dairy allergy response (yes it’s really an allergic response, not just lactose intolerance). I have doctored box cake recipes with egg substitutes made with tapioca and potato flour mixed with water. I’ve just cut pineapples out of my life and in recipes calling for it, I’ve substituted with oranges or kiwi or mango or something else instead. I have even discovered that enjoying wine or liquor while eating an egg-based dessert prevents the allergic response that usually comes (doesn’t work for pineapple).
Despite that, I’ve not yet remixed that sweet potato recipe. You may be wondering what’s holding me back? [You may also be wondering where the heck I’m going with this, but just be patient and hang on, lol.] It’s taken me a while to figure it out, but I think I just did today. If you’ll indulge me a bit longer, I’ll explain and tie it to some of the current questions, challenges, and conversations on my Twitter feed.
Some might say that the sweet potato pie isn’t the problem. The recipe is fine as is. I just can’t eat it. So, I should just let it go. Good recipe, just not for me. Leave the recipe alone.
Some might point to the ingredients in a way. If the pie is made with sour milk or rotten eggs, then a whole lot of people would be getting sick, not just me. If that’s the case, then – again – the pie’s recipe isn’t the problem, it’s the quality of the ingredients. If we’re working with good ingredients, then we return to the first conclusion: I just need to leave the pie alone and go eat something else. Like an apple crisp. [Good but just not the same.]
The real issue is that it’s supposed to be *my* family recipe. I can’t eat and enjoy (without putting my wellness at risk) something that is supposed to be for ME. It’s part of my family legacy; it’s my inheritance. The thing that was passed on to me with love and pride and joy. But that inheritance makes me sick. Literally. And changing the recipe to adapt it to my needs means it’s not THE LAZARUS FAMILY recipe anymore. Changing it – using crushed oranges instead of pineapple, the tapioca and water mix instead of the eggs, a sweetened coconut milk instead of cow’s milk – is more than a remix. That’s a whole new pie recipe. I will have re-visioned the recipe as something very – even, entirely – different than it was. Who knows what it will taste like. It may be awful. That scares me too. I think I have good cooking sensibilities (comes honestly from both dad and mom), so that might all work together just fine, but what a risk.
Do I stay with a recipe that makes me sick for the sake of honoring my forebears? Do I put it aside and dare to find a way to come up with something different that incorporates some of what was good and what I learned from that old recipe, but no longer really bears the stamp of my mom, my grandmother, my great-grandmother? Will their cooking wisdom be commuted onto this new pie recipe regardless because I am *still* their legacy?
Similar questions as this confront us about institutions of far greater social consequence than my sweet potato pie. Recently, especially Black Christians, are being asked hard questions of the religion and the God we claim to follow and worship (see Son of Baldwin here on the passing of Eddie Long and Dr. Jonathan Higgins on Kim Burrell); of higher education (see my blog posts here, here, and here and Craig Steven Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy); of the U.S. political enterprise built as it is on settler colonialism, slavery, rape, theft despite its high-minded treatises on equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (see my blog posts here and here). All these pieces confront us with the choice of remixing, transformation as remix, revolution and turning away from the legacy we have claimed as an essential inheritance necessary to bind us to the past as a bridge to the future.
We could say the problem lies not in the institutions themselves but in the people who are made sick by them. They should just leave, these folks would say. Folks have been saying that hence our current (under Obama) and ongoing (under the next administration) deportation, criminal injustice, and Christian fundamentalist terrorist crisis.
We could say that the problem lies in the quality of the ingredients alone. Get rid of the misogyny and fundamentalism and the Christianity can be saved. Excise the capitalist profit motive and the democracy can be saved. The connection between K12 and colleges and universities is simply spoiled and with refreshment, our educational system can be saved. Again, it’s not the recipe that’s the problem. All we need is a remix.
What will we lose if we turn away from these social institutions that have been handed down to us but which absolutely make us sick in ways that have material effects on individuals, whole communities, our nation, and which have ripple effects on the world at large? What will we continue to lose if we don’t?
What will we gain?
Re-visioning the things that have been handed to us requires courage, but it requires creativity, imagination. Our artists – poets, writers, musicians and songwriters – have been showing us the way. Are we ready to let go?
Am I ready for a new sweet potato pie recipe? To try and fail to arrive at something that tastes as yummy and try again until I get something that doesn’t make me sick?
Are we ready – for a new religion? a new education? a new form of government? Are we ready to try at something that might fail in the rhetorical power of what we have had but that doesn’t require our overlooking the sickness of some to enjoy?
We have decisions to make.