Return Beautiful with love: Sweet Potato Pie and the President

Return Beautiful with love: Sweet Potato Pie and the President
Ms. Sheila's contest pie

I think it’s high time I shared some stories from the pie contest. Don’t you?

Pie contest.  If you’re a new reader here, or you don’t personally know me (a small group, I confess), you may not know what occupied my September and October.

My friend Kate and I had ourselves a pie contest here on the south side.  I wrote about Kate last year when she competed in the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest.  We dreamed up this idea then.  And Kate had the moxie to help me pull it off this year, November 3.

Oh, we had a lot of help!  Neighborhood businesses like Robust, with their donated coffee.  Girl Scouts who served pie.  University of Chicago undergrads who made music for us, all for free.  My buddies did absolutely everything else.  And we raised $2000 for the Hyde Park/Kenwood Hunger Programs.

Who knew you could do that.  It was just an idle little daydream one minute, and the next, we were the South Side Pie Challenge with a website, a facebook page, radio time, fancy professional pastry judges, and bakers.  Fifty-two bakers!

Fifty-two bakers who brought us their best.

That’s what impressed me the most.  People really knocked it out of the park for this.  Watching the pies come in on the morning of the contest was part festival and part church service, each baker holding two of their pies, most of them still warm from the oven.  On their faces: happy, nervous anticipation.  Pride, button-bursting pride–especially with children.  Shyness, modesty, meek hope.  And everyone bringing the very best they had to offer, the best they could give.

"cover" photo

I’m hung up on this point.  It’s important.  Bringing the best we have to give to one another: this is how we make good communities, neighborhoods, cities.  It’s how we combat malice, and chaos, and indignities large and small–from rudeness to murderous rampages.  It’s how we make families refuges–rather than places of dread, deflation, and abuse.  We bring to each other, and generously give, the very best self that we have to give.  Kindness and manners, certainly, but also our creativity, our resourcefulness, our very most carefully made pie crusts.

Because we at the South Side Pie Challenge believe in both our product and our cause (that is, pies, and food pantries), we created a cookbook of recipes gathered from the contest.  Pie friend and e-book old hand Susan (also, sour cherry wonderworker) took charge of this project and we are just about finished.  Our collection, Victory a la Mode: Recipes from the First Annual South Side Pie Challenge features 23 recipes from the contest, many of them winners in their categories and including three recipes from the fancy professional judges.  It will soon be available for $5 from; all money will go to the Hyde Park/Kenwood Hunger Programs.

It’s a nice little collection, but it only has recipes, not stories.  And because I like stories, I collected a few of those.  Here’s one.

Let me introduce to you Ms. Sheila.  I heard about her first in an email.  Her devoted friend and neighbor wrote me a nice note, saying his friend Sheila would like to be in the contest but she did not have access to the internet.  All our registration was online, so this did pose a small challenge in a few cases.  No problem–I called her up and learned to my surprise that she lives about a block away from me.

I went and brought her the registration forms and a copy of the rules.  Our rules weren’t much really, just: there has to be at least one crust, and it has to be in a pie pan.  On the warm autumn day I visited, she was out on the porch waiting for the man to come do the maintenance on her boiler.   Ms. Sheila had sounded so old and frail on the phone so I was not expecting the hat-clad, long black dress wearing, much younger looking woman that I saw.

We talked pie.  She said she liked our cause, hunger was one of her pet causes.  And she wanted to win a prize.  I told her, heck, who knows?  Give it a shot.  I told her, we have beautiful big ribbons for prizes.  That they were being handmade in Canada.  She did want a beautiful big ribbon.  She was a little vexed about the pie pan business.  Her pie–her sweet potato pie–is usually free form, made on a cookie sheet and decorated with leftover pastry.  But she thought she could adjust.

Over the next few weeks we talked often, me going to get forms from her, her calling me with various questions and further vexations.  She thought she was supposed to use a 10″ pie pan and complained that she could not find a disposable one.  She was a little angry about the rules and wanted me to be sure and tell them to fix it.  Them.  Well really it was just me, just me and my friend Kate.  I told her I’d pass the complaint along.

She sounded a little crankier and frailer every time we talked.  I was worried she’d get too grumpy about the whole thing and withdraw, but she didn’t.

Our pie drop-off was between 9 and 11 on the day of the contest.  Ms. Sheila called the night before and told me she couldn’t be there, something had come up, and could her son drop off her pies at 8?  Well of course, I said, and too bad she’d miss the day.  Where would she be?, I asked.  Well, she said, she was getting on a bus early and going to Ohio to campaign for Obama that day.


The contest marched on with her pies but without her.  Our judges took their time in teams of two as they assessed four categories, no one allowed in the room but them, and Kate, and me.   Our sweet potato/pumpkin team got to Ms. Sheila’s pie after a string of very impressive pies, paused.  “Tastes like Grandma’s pie,” said our judge who among other things in his professional life is a professional pie taster.  How do you know that?!, I thought.  It was whimsically decorated with hearts and an eye–pictograms for her pie’s name: “I Love You Day Sweet Potato Pie.”

To Ms. Sheila, “I Love You Day” has a long and personal history.   She clarified to me that it’s more about moments than days.  Any day can have an I Love You Moment (they’re moments with a capital m, definitely).  It’s a moment when you help someone, give of yourself, make a connection with a stranger or a loved one, recognize the beautiful, create justice.  Formally or informally.  As in, working with veteran’s support groups.  Political activism in the service of deeply held beliefs–without consideration of one’s own capability or cost.  Greeting strangers with a hug.

She’s an artist, and she likes to make impromptu sculptures of someone’s face when she meets them.  She does this with grand gestures in the air with her hands, an instant performance art, a sign-gesture directive to fix a moment, to frame a friend’s face in her mind.  She gives out little red beads in the shape of a heart.  She gave me one.

Her front door bears a chalkboard hand-lettered sign which says in curly cursive, Return Beautiful with Love.  Poetic and cryptic to me.  Is it a command?  Is she addressing the people who cross her threshold as “Beautiful,” a name she reserves for, well, everyone she meets?  “Well,” she told me with a laugh, “mostly I want my sons to see it when they enter, so they come home with a forgiving and loving heart.”  She regards not just people but much in her life as beautiful.  You can talk to Ms. Sheila for a very short time and you know she thinks you’re beautiful and lovely, and not just you but all the wonderful made things, like sweet potatoes, and hands, and trees.

The history of Ms. Sheila’s I Love You Day includes a tree set up, four years ago, on 53rd Street in Hyde Park with directions for community members to decorate it with items of significance regarding a neighborhood politician who had just made it big.  Her request elicited quite a lot of paraphernalia on this tree.  She still has the tree–a large limb, really–set up in her living room like a tribute corner to this favorite neighborhood son.  Her walls are dotted with articles, hand-lettered posters, and collages tracking a life of art, community involvement, and political savvy.  Ms. Sheila has brought us her best, brought it to everyone here in my neighborhood, for decades.  She’s still bringing it.

How do I know all this?  Because I got to bring her a prize.  Fluffy silver third place ribbon, South Side Pie Challenge mug, gift certificates from generous local establishments, a cookbook.  She was thrilled, overjoyed.

Even better for Ms. Sheila was the prize she won on November 6, with a little extra payoff today, January 21, 2013.  Sometimes, every once in a long while, our labors of love return to us, beautiful in our eyes.

Here is Ms. Sheila’s recipe in her words, the first time it’s ever been written down.

I Love You Day Sweet Potato Pie
Please try to pick beautiful sweet potatoes not yams. Because sweet potatoes look real smooth, pretty with a few indentations of dots on them, and plump. In the palms of your lovely hands they will make you smile.

Our sweet potatoes were eaten in the South by Slaves and reminded them of yams that they also ate from Africa on their journey. The African-American incorporated the sweet potato that is a part of our history. It is my healthy sweet potatoes that I enjoy and love on my journey. This recipe is for an old fashion dessert. Please read instructions. Yield two pies.

Pie Crust
Use a favorite pie crust recipe or prepared shell. Deep dish is best. You can also use Jiffy pie crust mix which I use for this pie. I add ½ t. cinnamon and ¼ c. sugar and follow the instructions on the Jiffy box.

Make 12 to 10 little balls about 1/2” and shape into small lovely heart shapes looking pretty. You will use these to decorate around the inside border of the pie once you fill it, first clockwise at 12, 3, 6, and 9 to be equal and fill in the rest, with all heart shapes pointing toward the center. Sprinkle with sugar and nutmeg.

Sugar glaze
Next make a simple syrup with 1 t. Vanilla extract, ½ t. cinnamon, ½ c. water, and ½ c. sugar. Boil these together  in a small saucepan till smooth, then add 1 t. butter. You’ll brush this over the top of the pie later, so set it aside for now.

Sweet potato filling
5 c. of sweet potato–about five lovely hand-sized
1 stick of butter
1 ½ c. sugar
¼ c. half & half
¼ c. evaporated milk
1 c. heavy whipping cream
3 eggs (take that little white membrane off the yolk—it doesn’t mix up well), beat them in a bowl
½ t. nutmeg
1 t. cinnamon
½ t. mace
1 t. vanilla extract

1. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

2. Wash, peel, and cut your lovely sweet potatoes into 1”cubes. Cover with water until lightly firm and tender with boiling for 20 minutes and drain off water. Smash one or two cubes to see if they form a stiff peak. You will see a few lumps, that’s a good thing, and now you are ready for your next ingredients.

3. Add stick of butter until melted. Stir in sugar and let stand for a few minutes until sugar dissolves. Add all milk ingredients. Add all spice ingredients. Add beaten eggs. Stir it up well.

Now taste Lovely sweet potato mixture to see if it needs something of milk or spice for your enjoyment, but not too much. If not sweet enough add sugar for your taste. The mix must look like little peaks of thickness to it. Do not use a blender. Use a spoon or your lovely hands.

4.  Precook your homemade or Jiffy pie crust for 5 minutes or less. I feel it makes a better pie crust, you will not get a gooey bottom crust this way. Please watch it so you will not overcook it.

5.  Now pour your sweet potato mix into pie crust up to edge and put handmade hearts around pie as directed above, and one in the middle if you like. Don’t forget to put aluminum foil around pie crust to keep it from burning.

Note: I like to take a fork and make little peaks over the top of the pie.

Now bake pie for 45 minutes. Check it after 30 minutes. It will certainly be done by 45 minutes. It is done when the center of the pie has risen or puffed up a little and you see no wet parts. If you have fluffed up little peaks all over the top of your pie with a fork like I like to do, you will know it is done when the tips of the little peaks will be just browned and crispy as the sugar carmelizes.

6.  When you take the pie out of the oven, remove the foil and brush around the edge of the crust with butter when it is still hot.  After it has cooled, brush the whole top of the pie with your sugar glaze.

Keep having I Love You Day Moments with I Love You Day Sweet Potato Pie, Beautiful.


You can see Ms. Sheila on the news on inauguration day, here.

Photo of I Love You Day Sweet Potato Pie taken by Dominic O’Connor.  Photo montage of pie contest taken by pie contestant Clair Smith of Clair in the Kitchen catering (

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