Freedom Smells Like My Mother’s Kitchen

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A Note from your host Bobbie Lewis: Today we welcome Desiree Cooper, who describes herself on her “Detroit Snob” website this way: “As the editor of the alternative newsweekly, the Metro Times, and a columnist with the Detroit Free Press for 11 years, Cooper was well-regarded as a compassionate writer who gave voice to the city’s everyday heroes. ​In 2009, she reinvented herself as a blogger, author and content specialist for non-profit organizations.” (And she has the cutest grandson in the world!)


My mother’s mind is quickly slipping away. At 80, she’s often agitated and confused. She has problems executing simple tasks like showering and getting dressed in the morning. Her conversation is limited to a few repetitive topics, and now it’s dappled with confounding non-sequitors.

But there are moments when I can still glimpse the amazing woman she used to be. The memories that come spilling out as she looks at old photos. The smell of her perfume. The glint of the earrings she is never seen without. The way she lights up around her great-grandson.

And when she takes over the kitchen to bake her sweet potato pies.

A sacred ritual

For my mother—and now for me—cooking is a sacred ritual, a nod to our heritage, a practice of love. Her greens, skillet corn cakes, butter beans and fried chicken were staples of my childhood. Now those recipes feel like what tethers us to each other, to our history and to the generations yet to come.

My parents were so good at providing a wonderful home that I sometimes forget that, for them, “home” was not always a place of sanctity. In their day, black women cooked “high on the hog” for their employers but served scraps to their children. Black men swallowed the shame of not being able to protect their wives and children in their own living rooms. Black children were robbed of their dreams as they slept in their own beds.

But if there was one thing that spoke of prosperity, hope and human dignity, it was the smell of food wafting from a warm kitchen. It was the sound of pots clanking and catfish frying. It was the ancient scents of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was the African worship of the yam.

A fight for peace in the home

I risk simplifying one of history’s seminal movements by saying it was all about a pie browning in the oven. But I will stand by this contention: The Civil Rights Movement was not only a fight for equality in public spaces, it also was about the ability to live peacefully at home. And nothing symbolizes the sanctity of home more than sharing a prayer and a meal around the dinner table.

It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite dessert was pecan pie. But there are stories on the Internet about the role that the sweet potato pie played in sustaining him during the struggle.  His sister-in-law claims to have baked him a sweet potato pie to speed his convalescence after he was stabbed in Harlem in 1958. A family friend had purportedly prepared King a soul food dinner including a sweet potato pie for the evening of April 4, 1968—the day he was assassinated.

This Martin Luther King Day, I will remember the courage of all of those who fought for my human dignity. And I will taste the gratitude in each delectable bite of my mother’s sweet potato pie.

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  1. Charlene Mitchell-Rodgers says

    Great story Desiree. Love your writing. I am crazy about sweet potato pie but I never make them myself. My aunts always baked them but now my brother has mastered it. You have inspired me with this recipe. It is the condensed milk that makes it light and creamy. Thanks!!! And enjoy MLK Day. Let’s have pie and count our blessings.

  2. Marla A says

    Just finished preparing the pie filling. I’ve used your recipe for quite a few years now, since I first saw it in a column you use to write for either the Detroit Free Press or News. It is just like my mom’s. I lost her last February to Alzheimer’s so I know how you feel. Thank you,because everyone that tries it loves this pie. Enjoy every last moment with her. The pictures you shown of her are so beautiful. I also follow you on FB.

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