Sweet potato pies, a beloved staple of North American fall and winter cooking, are baked out of mashed or blended sweet potatoes mixed with condensed milk, eggs, and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mace, and allspice. Few Americans and Canadians would think of such a dish as traditionally English, yet many cookery books written in England during the seventeenth century show that English people made and enjoyed pies like this. We decided to try one of these recipes, found in the Folger collection, during our recent Pi Day celebration.
All varieties of potato are native to South America, as are sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), which are in fact not potatoes and not related to potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) at all, are instead the tuberous roots of a plant belonging to the morning glory family. The earliest known evidence of potato cultivation goes back to the Andes in modern-day Peru and Bolivia, where archaeologists and scientists have discovered domesticated fragments of both potato and sweet potato plants dating from 2000-1200 BCE. While sweet potatoes were adopted rapidly in European countries and viewed as delicacies, white- or yellow-fleshed potatoes were initially viewed with some suspicion due to their membership in the nightshade family.
Somehow, sweet potatoes obtained a reputation as an aphrodisiac, and were often combined in recipes with other aphrodisiacs such as bone marrow or sea holly roots. Since European colonizers returning with Ipomoea batatas and Solanum tuberosum used similar sounding words to refer to them (sweet potatoes were “batatas,” while white potatoes were referred to as “papas” or “patatas”) it can be difficult to distinguish which kind of potatoes any single source is talking about, since the word “potato” in English applied to both. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the white- and yellow-fleshed Solanum tuberosum eventually became known as “Irish potatoes,” to help distinguish them from Ipomoea batatas, which were simply referred to as “potatoes.” You can find another early modern English sweet potato recipe in this 2016 blog post recreating a “sweet potato pudding,” and further discussion of the history of the potato and other ingredients used in early modern cooking in this 2017 article, both by Amanda E. Herbert.
So, what about pie? Potato pie recipes from this period are very similar to today’s sweet potato pie. They include most of the same spices and often use a great deal of sugar: ingredients that, like potatoes, came from an economy that in the early modern period increasingly relied on colonization of other parts of the world and the labor of enslaved people.
We found our recipe in Folger V.a.8, a seventeenth-century cookery manuscript belonging to an L. Cromwell. Cromwell, or possibly one of her other family members (since manuscript cookery books were often passed down through multiple generations), writes her recipe out the following way:
To make a potato pye
Take a pound of pottatoes & boile them
tell they be uery soft then take halfe
an ounce of sina: as much Nuttmeg
a little pepper some Large mace a
little salt 2 ounces of dates & 2 marrow
bones halfe a pound of butter & when
it is baked put in some white wine & butter.
Translated into present-day English, it might read like this:
To Make a Potato Pie
Take a pound of potatoes, and boil them until they are very soft, then take half
an ounce of cinnamon, as much nutmeg, a little pepper, some large mace, a
little salt, 2 ounces of dates, and 2 marrow bones, half a pound of butter, and when
it is baked, put in some white wine & butter.
As with all early modern recipes, we had to make some decisions about weights, measurements, instructions, and ingredients. Although this recipe appears simple enough, like many early modern recipes, it provides no guidance on baking times, how to interpret subjective measurements like “a little” or “some,” or whether to even use a crust (and what kind). The recipe also includes some ingredients that might look strange to modern eyes, such as dates and bone marrow. Bone marrow was also viewed as an aphrodisiac in early modern cookery and is often found in recipes alongside sweet potatoes. Printed English cookbooks from the period include variations on the recipe, including Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1671) and Hannah Glasse’s The art of cookery, made plain and easy (1747).
Although pies made with white- and yellow-fleshed potatoes may not have been as common as pies made with sweet potatoes, we decided to try this recipe with white potatoes, as “white potato pie” has a modern tradition on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. For white wine we used a medium-bodied sherry, which is widely considered a good substitute for early modern English “sack,” a dry white wine. We also reduced the amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg, since in early modern amounts they might make the pie inedible. Just like early modern cooks, you can vary amounts to suit your taste.
L. Cromwell’s Potato Pie
1.5 lbs. sweet potatoes OR “Irish potatoes” (we used baby gold potatoes)
3 oz. chopped dates
2 large marrow bones
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
A sprinkling of blade mace, or ½ tsp. powdered mace
salt and pepper
¾ cup unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons melted
¼ cup sherry
your favorite double pie crust (we used a hot water crust)
The day before cooking, place your marrow bones in a large bowl and cover them with cold water, along with 2 tablespoons of salt. Brine them in this manner for 12-24 hours, changing the salt and water mixture 3-4 times, until all the blood is drawn out.
When you are ready to start baking, heat the oven to 425 degrees.
Prepare the filling: stand the marrow bones up on their end on a pan with a lip, maybe covered in nonstick foil or parchment paper for easy cleanup later. Sprinkle some salt onto the ends and put into the oven at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes—depending on the thickness of your bones, they may need longer.
While your bones are roasting and then cooling, peel the potatoes and then boil them until they are fork tender. Add the chopped dates, spices, and a little salt and pepper to taste. Blend in ¾ cup of unsalted butter. Once the bones are cool enough to handle, use a butter or table knife to remove the marrow. If the marrow is still pink, throw it back in the oven for 2-3 minutes. Once cooked, combine it with the potato mixture. Prepare your pie tin by greasing and flouring the sides with butter, shortening, or cooking spray.
Once the filling is ready, make your double hot water crust (or whichever crust you’ve decided to make). Lay the first crust in your pie tin or plate, fill it with the potato mixture, and cover it with your second crust. Make sure you cut at least one vent in the top crust of your pie—you will need it to add the sherry and butter once the pie comes out of the oven.
Bake your pie for 45-50 minutes if using the hot water crust, or according to your crust recipe’s instructions. Remove it from the oven and let it sit for 5-10 minutes, then carefully pour in the sherry and melted butter a little at a time, giving the pie filling time to absorb the liquid. Let it sit for at least an hour, then unmold if using a hot water crust, or cut yourself a slice.
If bone marrow is too complicated or experimental for you, you could easily substitute the marrow for pork belly or another variety of fatty, roasted meat. We also tried throwing in 2 apples, enjoying the sweetness they brought to the dish. It might also benefit from some fresh herbs like thyme or sage. Although we were suspicious of how this pie would taste, it was actually delicious—the fat of the marrow and butter was nicely balanced by the sherry’s sharpness and the taste of the cinnamon and nutmeg. A great celebration pie.
Modern recipes have changed a bit to appeal to modern palates—now, potato pies get their richness and sweetness from sweetened condensed milk instead of marrow and dates, but the cinnamon-nutmeg flavor profile remains unchanged. White potato pies in Maryland, like many early modern English potato pies, include other flavors such as lemon in addition to butter and white wine. So give your next sweet potato pie an early modern kick, and try your variation of L. Cromwell’s “potato pye,” or try a more modern “Maryland White Potato Pie.”
“To make a potato pye.” Manuscript cookbook of L. Cromwell, 17th century. Folger V.a.8, p. 16-17. Description of V.a.8 in the Manuscript Cookbook Survey. Digital surrogate of V.a.8 in the Folger digital collections.
Ugent, Donald, Shiela Pozorski, and Thomas Pozorski. “Archaeological potato tuber remains from the Casma Valley of Peru.” Economic Botany 36, 182–192, 1982. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02858715
Salaman, Redcliffe N. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Chaki, Rohini. “White Potato Pie.” Atlas Obscura, April 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/white-potato-pie