She Bakes Pies to Comfort Those Impacted by Racial Violence

She knew it was a message from God, but how would baking pies help others?

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- Posted on Oct 26, 2020

Rose McGee with her famous sweet potato pies; photo by Matthew Gilson

I sat in my living room in Minnesota, watching news coverage of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, by a white police officer. Video of police in riot gear, tear gas snaking through dark streets, people’s eyes filled with anger and fear. How horrible it was that violence had led to more violence! But what could I do?

Go make pies.

The thought came to me in a flash. Not a big booming voice but the seed of an idea. I got up and went into my kitchen. Make pies? Seriously, God?

I couldn’t imagine how pies would help a community torn apart by violence. Sure, my pies were good. The basic recipe came from my grandmother and great-grandmother, who’d raised me in Tennessee. Both were strong, capable women; my grandmother took me to civil rights marches in the mid-1960s. They knew the importance of nourishing our community with good food and collective activism.

My job in our house was cleaning, so I didn’t learn to cook until I was grown. I was married and living in Denver when I tried my hand at making the desserts of my childhood.

 

“You want four medium sweet potatoes,” my grandmother told me over the phone. “Bring them to a boil in a large pot, then simmer until tender.”

I got pretty good at making pies. When I brought a sweet potato pie to my office for Black History Month, coworkers were amazed by the flavor. That’s Southern Black comfort food for you! Everyone wanted a piece.

“Rose, this is really good pie. Have you considered selling them?”

After my marriage ended, I got a job at IBM in Minnesota. I started selling sweet potato pies at farmers markets on the side. I’d come home from work on Friday, bake until 3 a.m., then drag myself to the market by sunrise. My pies sold well, but sweet potato is not a cheap pie to make, and I wasn’t earning enough money to justify the time.

By then, I had remarried and had two children to keep me busy. I made pies for family events and special occasions, but I figured I was done as a professional pie lady.

Yet in August 2014, with my kids grown and my spirit troubled by what was happening in Ferguson, I found myself in my kitchen, with a strange compulsion. Go make pies! I couldn’t fathom the reason, but I knew a message from God when I heard one. So I started baking.

When I finished, I asked my son, Adam, who was visiting, if he would accompany me south. “I’m driving down to Ferguson to deliver pies,” I told him. “You’re what?” Then Adam saw I was serious. “Of course I’m coming with you.”

We drove more than 500 miles to Missouri with 30 freshly baked pies in the trunk, each in a box with a poem written by my daughter, Roslyn, who’s a pastor. Southerners are persnickety about their sweet potato pie. Everyone thinks their mama makes it best. Would the folks in Ferguson be leery of me and my pies?

Adam and I pulled up near the Michael Brown memorial. It had been a few weeks since Michael had been killed, and the spot where he died was piled high with flowers, soft toys and cards. A teenage girl was fussing in front of the memorial.

“You should have been inside!” she cried out.

I walked over. “Are you all right?”

The girl paused. “I just wish Michael had been inside.”

I nodded. I wished things had been different too. I wished that folks listened to and respected each other better and didn’t resort to violence. I wished people who loved Christ cared more about the racism in our country. I asked the girl, “Would you like a pie?”

“What kind?”

“Sweet potato.”

“Yes, please.”

I walked back to my car, pulling out one of the carefully boxed pies. I handed it to the girl. She opened the lid.

“It smells so good!” she said and burst into tears. She said Michael had been her neighbor.

I hugged her tight. I wanted to take away her pain, to change what had happened. I couldn’t, but now I understood why God had sent me.

Adam and I drove around Ferguson, asking folks if we could give them sweet potato pie. People were grateful, more than I could have ever imagined.

A woman outside a church held the pie to her chest. “My mother used to make us soul food like this,” she said, “but I wanted French fries. That’s what the other kids ate.” Her eyes filled. “I can’t eat this pie.”

“Oh no, girl,” said her sister, “we’re going to eat this pie.”

“You should enjoy it with your family,” I said.

The woman shook her head. “I’m putting it in the freezer. I need this pie to remind me of my mother.”

On our drive back north, Adam and I talked about what we’d seen, the people we’d met. How can I help more, Lord? I prayed. You have to lead me.

God led me to partner with the Minnesota Humanities Center and to hold gatherings over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. People of all races can come together and discuss how to make our community stronger.

Each year, we’re flooded with volunteers from all walks of life, who join us in baking pies for the MLK Day of Service. The recipe is mine, passed down from my grandmother, with little tweaks here and there. “What do you think we should add?” I ask volunteers. A bit of lemon, sweetened condensed milk, some salt.

I want folks to bring their communal knowledge to baking pies. We make more than 90 pies per batch, and every batch is a little different. The pies are given out to healthcare workers, firefighters, teachers and others. Whenever the world gets me down and I think about all the injustices still left to fix, I remind myself of what I tell our volunteers: “Keep your eyes on the pies.”

I’ve brought pies to comfort people all over the country. To Charleston, South Carolina, after the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church, a historic Black church. To the water protectors at Standing Rock (pies baked with the indigenous Circle of Grandmothers). Kosher pies to the survivors of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Everyone is appreciative. I’m grateful to come from a line of women who nourished their loved ones and found ways to uplift their communities, one sweet potato pie at a time.

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