One basic fact about being human is that no matter what else is happening, you still need to eat. And if what you eat can do more than merely sustain you — if it can encourage, inspire and elevate — then you might be a little stronger when you get up from the table.
In Minneapolis, one woman has been baking and giving away pies that are intended to fortify a community in need. On Monday evening, just hours before the citywide curfew went into effect, Rose McGee, 69, arrived with an automobile caravan of volunteers at the now-memorial site where George Floyd was killed by a police officer on May 25.
The volunteers got out of their cars and began distributing boxes of her signature Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, each packaged with a poem, written by McGee’s daughter, Roslyn Harmon. It reads in part: “Remember to eat, pray and love as you partake in making a difference, for there is much to be proud of.”
“This is the sacred dessert of Black culture,” McGee told HuffPost. At a time when many people feel hopeless and exhausted, these particular pies offer much more than physical sustenance. “They link us to our history, they soothe our souls and they renew us for the work ahead,” she said.
How the concept of “comfort pie” began.
Like so many people in the summer of 2014, McGee was heartsick at the news about the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“I sat in my living room, watching the news, and I saw the hopelessness on the faces of the people there,” she said. “I knew that I needed to do something. Right then, the Lord spoke to me: ‘Get up and bake some pies and take them down there.’”
“The pies are who we are — a beautiful caramel color on the outside, filled with sweetness on the inside.”
She baked 30 sweet potato pies and drove more than 500 miles to give sustenance to mourners, protesters and other troubled souls she met along the way.
In Ferguson, she learned how best to give pies away and how to prepare for people’s reactions. “I realized that I needed to begin by asking permission to give this gift. And then I needed to be ready for the sometimes very deep emotions that were shared with me. Time after time, I would hear that this pie had arrived in someone’s life at exactly the right time, when it was most needed.”
Driving home from Ferguson, McGee realized she had a calling. She contacted Shep Harris, mayor of Golden Valley, the first-ring Minneapolis suburb where she lives, and told him about her vision for an annual event to be held over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. Harris and other city leaders supported her idea, and the sixth annual event was held this year in January.
Volunteers bake one pie for each year since King’s birth — 91 pies this year. Once the pastry is ready, there’s a community-wide gathering to share stories and engage in small-group conversations on issues of race and empathy. The attendees themselves decide which people in their community will be given a pie. In the past, pies have been presented to first responders, health professionals, teachers and community leaders. Some youth groups and racial justice organizations have received them, as have St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.
She has also crisscrossed the country to deliver Sweet Potato Comfort Pies to communities that are experiencing tragedy. She brought her baked goods to survivors of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, after the mass shooting of African American churchgoers in 2015. She baked pies alongside Nebraska’s Native American Circle of Grandmothers to bring to the “Water Protectors” at the Standing Rock pipeline protests in 2017. She made kosher pies in 2018 for survivors of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
And after bringing pies to those in the Twin Cities mourning and protesting the fatal officer-involved shootings of Jamar Clark in 2015 and Philando Castile in 2016, she is once again in her own community during a time of tragedy baking pies with her neighbors. It should be noted that McGee also has a full-time job as a program officer for the Minnesota Humanities Center in East St. Paul.
Gathering takes on a whole new meaning in a pandemic.
While baking together looks different in an age of COVID-19 and curfews, McGee has adapted. She created a Facebook Live event and invited people to bake pies in their homes along with her. People joined from as far away as Florida and Nebraska, with the far-flung participants pledging to donate pies in their own communities.
“Nothing can come into your life through a closed hand. Blessings flow through you as you give and receive with an open hand. I think we blessed some people there, so they can go forth and be a blessing. After all, food is love.”
Back in Minnesota, McGee pulled her last pie out of the oven in the wee hours of Monday morning, got a few hours’ sleep and then met with volunteers in her driveway for the trip to the memorial site. Being mindful of the coronavirus, they all wore masks and rubber gloves.
Andrena Seawood, who lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, first met McGee at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis and now is a frequent volunteer for Sweet Potato Comfort Pie projects. Seawood and her son, Matthew, baked their pies together on Sunday night. Matthew, who will be a freshman at Morehouse College in the fall, “helps me help get the spices just right,” Seawood told HuffPost. On Monday, the two were by McGee’s side.
“We gave pies to a volunteer who was just wrapping up a media interview on why he showed up to help,” Seawood said. “Another pie went to a mother who had brought her three children to pay their respects.”
Asked if distributing pies had encouraged any healing that day, she said she thought it did. “I have never handed a pie to someone without getting a smile back. You know, nothing can come into your life through a closed hand. Blessings flow through you as you give and receive with an open hand. I think we blessed some people there, so they can go forth and be a blessing. After all, food is love.”
Volunteer Hannah Carney, another Golden Valley resident, told HuffPost that the experience of distributing pies at the memorial site was “transformative.” She said, “Rose serves as a beacon of hope for those in pain and her pies are an expression of love. They bring power to those who accept them. The entire experience connects and strengthens our community.”
McGee said she’s not sure what direction her work will take next, but she knows it will involve pie. Another Facebook Live cooking event will be held in anticipation of pie distribution at ARTS-Us, a St. Paul youth arts organization that has become a center for food distribution in an area where many grocery stores have been destroyed. After the event, McGee will host a virtual opportunity for reflection for those who made or delivered pies.
“Rose serves as a beacon of hope for those in pain and her pies are an expression of love. They bring power to those who accept them. The entire experience connects and strengthens our community.”
“Not only does this help process the experience, but it also helps each of us identify how to actively work in communities and schools to promote racial justice,” she said.
“It’s called comfort food for a reason.”
Roslyn Harmon, who lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, is the founder and senior pastor of Circle of Healing Ministry. As McGee’s daughter, she has some familial insights into the significance of the pie her mother bakes.
“This is a recipe of love that has been in our family for decades,” she told HuffPost. “My great-great-grandmother baked these pies, and now my mother bakes them. Sweet potato pies have been a staple of our culture since slavery. Blood, sweat and tears have been poured into them. The pies we distribute today honor generations of Black women who worked hard to provide soulful meals to their families, using minimal ingredients and with limited financial means.”
“The pies are who we are — a beautiful caramel color on the outside, filled with sweetness on the inside,” Harmon said.
McGee echoes her daughter’s appreciation of the pie’s lineage. “You hear so many stories of how important food was in the civil rights era, how people cooked for those on the front lines and how they gathered together to get strength,” she said. “Sweet potato pie was always on the table back then, so we’re making a connection when we’re giving it away now. Plus, it just tastes so good. It’s called comfort food for a reason.”
The power of these pies is exponential, McGee said. First, there’s the opportunity to bake them. “I had so many people who were baking along with me Sunday night, which was the first night of curfew in our area, who told me that the experience of baking, and the wonderful way the pies made their house smell, was so soothing,” she said.
Then there’s the experience of giving the pies away. “One African American woman at the memorial site said, ‘Those pies are beautiful — could you give me your card so I can find out where to buy one?’ And I asked, ‘Would you like to have one right now, for free?’ I’ll never forget that look on her face — just the joy and surprise of someone giving her something so valuable and made with so much love.”
Finally, of course, there’s what McGee describes as the healing power of eating this particular food. “When you think about pie, it’s not essential, but when you think about how it makes you feel, maybe it is.”
See the recipe below ...
Sweet Potato Comfort Pie
Makes two 9-inch pies
4 medium to large sweet potatoes (boiled with skin on until tender), cooled and peeled
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 cup condensed milk
1 teaspoon lemon extract
2 unbaked pie shells
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. In the 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.
3. Pour filling into pie shells. Place pies 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.