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Ilda Jackson's Sweet Potato Pie

A White woman married to an African American man searches for the perfect sweet potato pie recipe.

Ilda Jackson: “He kept saying, ‘I want a sweet potato pie like my mother made.’”

Rainier Valley Food Stories is a multi-cultural oral history and documentary project about food in the Rainier Valley. The Rainier Valley Historical Society collected pictures, recipes, and stories about food from all the ethnic groups in the Rainier Valley, and published them in a community history cookbook. Here are excerpts from an interview Mikala Woodward did with Ilda Jackson, a white woman who married an African American man in 1955.

IJ: I was born in Wapato, Washington which is fourteen miles from Yakima. Came over here when I was nine months old and been here ever since. My dad was a tugboat captain. We were one of the lucky ones, that he did have a job during the Depression. ‘Course they didn’t get paid very often, but he had a job. I went to school [in Seattle], went to Queen Anne High School. Got married in ’42 when the war was declared ‘cause everybody got married. Joycie was born in ’43. Jeannie was born in ’44 and then my husband went in the army and when he came home the boy was born in ’47. That was my first batch. Then my second batch was [born in] ’51, ’61 and ’63.

MW: Can you tell me a little bit about how you met your [second] husband?

IJ: I met him through a gal at work. She was a marvelous wit. She never said anything risqué or anything – it was just funny, the way she’d phrase things. I just thought she was great. She asked me if I wanted to come by her house and meet some friends, and so I did. I met him when he came with a couple of other people. I looked at him, I thought he was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. And I still do. [Laughs] We got married in ’55, so we’ve been married about forty-seven going on forty-eight years. I think he’s the luckiest man in the world to get me for two dollars. That’s all it cost for a marriage license in those days. [Laughs]

Ilda and her husband ran into trouble when they tried to buy a house in the Rainier Valley in the 1950s.

IJ: I never had any idea at all that I’d run into anything. I found this house when he was at sea – he sailed for the MSTS. He was gone for two and a half to three months at a time – they went from here over to Yokohama then down to Manila, then someplace else, and then back up to Yokohama and then back to here. They ferried servicemen, their wives, their goods, like if they were being transferred over there to the Orient. Oh, and supplies for the troops. That’s what they did.

But, when I found the house, I put a hundred dollars down for earnest money, and [the mortgage company] called me constantly—“When is Mr. Jackson gonna be home ‘cause we want to get the papers signed.” It was through FHA so we both had to sign them. But when his boat came in, and we went down to sign the papers, they looked at him and suddenly they couldn’t handle the loan.

But nevertheless we found the First Mortgage Company which took over the loan, because he was a government worker and had been for fourteen years. It was Sparkman and MacLean, by the way, that turned us down. So when they went belly up, I laughed all day. It made my day. [Laughs]

MW: So, you weren’t expecting that kind of discrimination.

IJ: No, I wasn’t really familiar with all the ins and outs of the differences between the blacks and the whites in those days. I know that the police were really hard. We couldn’t go anywhere. Everybody gawked so that it was embarrassing. Because up until the soldiers started bringing girls home from Korea that they had married, you never saw much of a mixed couple. Just occasionally, and I mean occasionally.

MW: Was that hard on your marriage?

IJ: Well, he was gone all the time, so I worked, and the kids and I—we were here alone. Then when he came home—no, I guess not. Because we’ve never been the type to drink and carouse or be out and around. We used to take the kids and go to the drive-in movies because that was safe. But other than that, we didn’t do a great amount. I suppose if we’d been the bon vivant type where we were out bumming around we might have run into a lot of it, but we just weren’t.

MW: Was this neighborhood pretty mixed at that time?

IJ: No. No. My husband was the only minority in the whole block when we first moved in. Down there where that big housing project deal is [Rainier Vista? Holly Park?] , when we moved in here it was a dairy farm. Everybody was all white at that time. But then, things have changed, of course. There were no Orientals in this area either at that time. It was just lily white.

MW: So, you’ve seen it really change and change.

IJ: Oh yes, yes, yes. Now I’m the minority, so what comes around goes around, I guess. Or goes around comes around. [Laughs]

Conversation turns to food…

IJ: I like to cook. I like to try recipes.

MW: Did you learn any new food from your husband’s family?

IJ: Well, my husband’s family lived back in Little Rock. And, no, because I never met any of them unless they came out here. Jack, my husband, he’s never been a cook or anything like that, so when it came to sweet potato pies he kept saying, “I want a sweet potato pie like my mother made.” Well, I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, because as far as I was concerned sweet potatoes were made for candied [yams] and nothing else. And, so, I made a pumpkin pie. “No, that’s not it.” I made this one. I asked every black girl I knew or anybody from the South for their recipe for sweet potato pie. “No, this is not it, no, this is not it.” So finally I just got mad and quit. And then we went to a picnic and there was a sweet potato pie. And he took a bite and he said, “This is it! This is it!” So, I went to Mrs. Garnett and she gave me the recipe. So then I was able to make them. But it’s not like pumpkin pie at all, I just thought it was.

Well, my daughter called me up one day and she said, “I’ve got a sweet potato pie recipe that’ll makes yours look sick.” I said, “I don’t believe it.” So we made them and oh boy is it good. It’s called a custard sweet potato pie. And it is good. They’ve got a whole cube of butter in a pie, you know. Not counting the sugar. Talk about good. Mmm. I had a girlfriend named Lily, she said, “You know, that’s so good it makes you want to go out and hit a tree.”

 

Mrs. Garnett’s Sweet Potato Pie

  • 2 medium sweet potatoes
  • ½ cup butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ¼ tsp vanilla
  • 1 ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 cup sugar, or to taste
  • ¼ cup flour
  • uncooked pie shell

Bake or boil the sweet potatoes until they are soft. Beat them with the other ingredients until light and fluffy. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 350° for 1 hour.

 

Custard Sweet Potato Pie

  • 1 cup yams
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 can evaporated milk
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • dash salt
  • uncooked pie shell

Bake or boil the yams until they are soft. Put all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 400° for 15 minutes, then turn oven down to 350° and bake for another 45 minutes.

 

by Mikala Woodward

Excerpted from Rainier Valley Food Stories Cookbook