Pie gets plenty of attention this month.
It’s a time of year when nervous home cooks and experienced bakers alike are pondering and planning all things pie-related, debating the relative merits of pumpkin, pecan or apple for their Thanksgiving tables.
But while November may be pie’s moment in the spotlight, that’s not how things work for Rose McGee, a 68-year-old Golden Valley resident. Instead, McGee is already looking toward January, when she and a crew of volunteers will be baking 91 of her signature Sweet Potato Comfort Pies in the course of a single day.
The event — officially known as Rose McGee’s Sixth Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday of Service — is timed to coincide with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which will be observed on Jan. 20 in 2020.
McGee’s upcoming event has two parts: It starts with a baking day (Jan. 18) in which McGee and an all-volunteer crew will bake the pies to mark the 91st anniversary of King’s birth.
The next day, Jan. 19, McGee will host a community conversation — Sweet Potato Comfort Pie: A Catalyst for Caring and Building Community — in which registered participants will sit down to sample the pie and talk about who in the community might need a pie.
In past years, pies have gone to firefighters, health-care workers, school teachers and administrators. Some youth groups and racial justice organizations have received them, as have St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.
How it began
It all started in the summer of 2014, when McGee was watching the news about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, and the resulting uproar, in Ferguson, Missouri.
Deeply troubled, she stood up and found herself standing in her kitchen overcome by the need to take action. By God, she needed to do something.
“I feel it was the Lord who spoke to me: ‘Get up and get some pies down there,’” McGee said.
So McGee told her son she was going to drive homemade sweet potato pies to Ferguson.
At first, he thought she was kidding. But then he agreed to go on the road trip with her and they, with 30 homemade pies in tow, had an amazing experience, delivering comfort and solidarity from Minnesota.
“Upon arrival, first, I asked permission of each person as I offered them a gift of a pie and soon discovered that each one had something to share about how the pie had come at just the right time,” McGee recalled on her project’s website.
As more fatal tragedies occurred in the months and years afterward, more road trips followed.
Rather than sending thoughts and prayers to mourners near and far, McGee brought herself and more pies to distressed communities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2015 and 2016 after the fatal officer-involved shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile; to South Carolina in 2015 after the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting left nine dead; to North Dakota to the Water Protectors at Standing Rock in 2017; to Pittsburgh after a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 left 11 dead and seven injured.
In 2018, St. Louis Park police officers made Sweet Potato Comfort Pies in response to the bombings in Mogadishu that killed numerous relatives of Somali residents in St. Louis Park.
Each time the pies went out, McGee was moved and humbled by the empathy and understanding the baked goods inspired.
“We’re still getting cards from the folks out in Pittsburgh,” McGee said, adding that one of the most memorable responses was from the widow of the man who died in the Minnehaha Academy explosion in 2017 in Minneapolis: “She said, ‘That pie was so delicious. I don’t know what you put in it, because it brought me such comfort.’”
This year, McGee was recognized for her efforts in building intergenerational resiliency and racial unity with a two-year Bush Fellowship grant from the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation, which is focused on solving community problems throughout the Midwest.
Making an impact
In addition to McGee’s personal baking, more than 3,000 sweet potato pies have been baked and served in the project. The work has involved 30,000 service hours and has impacted 3,000 people.
McGee said her broader desire is to help communities develop a greater capacity to respond to the many painful events that happen each day.
“We want to be able to express feelings, but we don’t always know how, so creating this food, then gathering and giving the pie away, is a way of doing that,” McGee said.
McGee has seen the magic and healing that can happen when making food with love. And she’s found that sometimes the best way to understand the value of something is to give it all away.
Of course, it’s no accident that this project is centered around this one particular food.
McGee told the Star Tribune: “I call it the sacred dessert of black culture. It’s a delicious way of nurturing and fortifying the human spirit. This pie not only gives us energy, but links us to history, soothes our spirits and renews us for much needed work.”
After all, pies are natural conversation starters. They can build community and help celebrate events. In hard times, they can provide a symbol of caring and solidarity. In fact, McGee is convinced the pies can even bridge racial divides and move our culture toward greater healing and equity.
McGee — who works full-time as a program officer for the Minnesota Humanities Center in East St. Paul — is well-versed in creating meaningful conversations.
“One of my responsibilities is to lead story circles, which is how we get to the richness and authenticity of people’s hearts and stories,” said McGee, who is also co-author of the book Story Circle Stories.
So her annual pie-based community conversations, which are free and involve about 200 people, aren’t random chatter. In fact, a Sweet Potato Comfort Pie Guide lays out how to convene meaningful and productive story circles.
When determining who should receive a pie, a call-and-response mindset can be a starting point: First, there is the call, or awareness of, a person or community that could use a pie. Then, there’s the issue of how to respond with respect and humility.
Each pie is hand-delivered and includes a poem, written by McGee’s daughter, Pastor Roslyn Harmon.
In certain situations, cultural considerations have come into play during pie distribution.
At least twice, when delivering pies outside of the Twin Cities, McGee has found herself customizing the pie packaging and messaging.
For example, when she brought pies to Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, she made the pies with students at the Jewish Day School in St. Louis Park, where the children made special cards to go with the pies.
Those pies had to be made in a kosher kitchen with kosher ingredients and utensils, and each box containing a pie had to be kosher-sealed and blessed by a rabbi.
When McGee made pies with the Indigenous Circle of Grandmothers to carry to Standing Rock, the grandmothers made their own poem and did a sacred blessing of the pies.
“Culture plays a big part in how some things are done,” McGee said.
A Tennessee childhood
Though McGee has made a remarkable impact on her Midwest community, she spent her early years far from Minnesota. She was born and raised in Jackson, Tennessee, growing up on a farm under the guidance of her grandmother and great-grandmother, whom she refers to as “the grand-women.”
“We lived in the country, and we were poor, but we weren’t starving,” she said. “We grew our own food, so that was healthier eating all around.”
She picked cotton for white farmers and also picked strawberries in the spring.
Born in 1951, she attended segregated schools for much of her early life. She was in high school when the Jackson-Madison County Fair finally became integrated. (The fair had previously been held for whites to attend first, then blacks the following week.)
“I discovered that they had been having all these contests and competitions that we previously didn’t even know existed,” she said. “I was a member of Future Homemakers of America and the 4-H Club, and I liked understanding the science behind cooking. I started entering my then-famous cornbread muffins in the baking competitions, and I always got a red or blue ribbon.”
After attending Lane College, she married, moved to Denver, had her daughter, Roslyn, and began working for United Airlines. She was also an adjunct professor at business colleges, teaching evening classes.
“I always had two jobs,” she said.
After her marriage ended in divorce, McGee took a job at an IBM regional office in Rochester, Minnesota, remarried and had her son, Adam.
There in the cold north, she began thinking about the food she had enjoyed in her childhood. She called her grandmother back in Tennessee and asked for advice on making a sweet potato pie.
“There were no recipes, of course,” McGee said. “But she talked me through it.”
As years went by, and she traveled across the United States, McGee tasted regional variations in the classic sweet potato pie recipe. Folks in Florida often included a splash of citrus juice. A co-worker who was originally from North Carolina suggested using condensed milk, not evaporated. McGee started adding ginger to her spice mix.
“I’ve tinkered with the recipe for many years,” she said. “All that time, I had no idea why, but I believe the dessert was speaking to me long before I ever realized it.”
After moving to Minneapolis, McGee started another “second job” as the owner of Deep Roots Gourmet Desserts, selling her pies at farmers markets and at Midtown Global Market.
By 2014, she was taking a break from the business, which had consumed all her available free time.
“I would get off work and bake all Friday night to be ready for the markets,” she said.
But then, in her frustration to “do something” in the wake of troubling events, she connected to a deeper purpose involving the pies, and the idea for the project began to grow.
After returning home from Ferguson, she called Golden Valley mayor Shep Harris and told him her idea. He was one of the people who attended the first gathering in McGee’s living room for discussions about what she calls “the power of the pie.”
“Rose is a survivor, activist, leader and visionary,” Harris said. “We are at a point in our community in Golden Valley where we’ve been able to build trust between the city and the African-American community. We still have a long ways to go, but we’re off to a good start, and we wouldn’t have gotten to this point but for Rose. She was the convener who built relationships. I’m proud of her, of her strength and courage. She’s a great leader for so many people.”
As a community activist, her vision and commitment have been recognized by many organizations. McGee was Golden Valley’s Citizen of the Year, and she has received that city’s Human Rights Award, too.
Teresa Martin, a member of the Golden Valley Human Rights Commission, said McGee has a gift for bringing people together from all walks of life to discuss the tough issues around diversity, social justice and how to build strong communities in times of divisiveness.
“She throws open the welcome doors and invites people into her life and mission,” Martin said. “I consider myself truly blessed to be her friend and to be a part of the work she is doing for our community.”
McGee is going to have an even busier year in 2020. As part of her Bush Fellowship, McGee plans to travel to several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to listen and learn.
She’s written a children’s book, Can’t Nobody Make a Sweet Potato Pie Like Our Mama, which will be published in spring 2021 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
She also hopes to spend some time in Los Angeles, visiting her first grandchild, Bentley Rose, who turns 2 in December.
This January, once all the flour has been dusted off the volunteer cooks’ hands, and once the last sliver of pie has been eaten, McGee hopes that members of her community still remember the deeper meaning behind this celebration of Dr. King’s life.
“He said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ You see what is happening every day. Doing nothing is not an option,” McGee said. “Change can be made, one pie at a time.”
From the community of Golden Valley, Minnesota to wherever you reside
May this sweet potato pie
soothe and warm your insides.
Take time to laugh, cry
and remember those you love,
but never forget your strength
that comes from above.
From family to community
and community to your heart
unity and peace is where
comfort and joy start.
So today be BLESSED
remember to eat, pray and love
as you partake in making a difference,
for there is much to be proud of. Enjoy!
— Pastor Roslyn Harmon, Circle of Healing Ministries, 2014
There are three ways to take part in Rose McGee’s Sixth Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday of Service:
Pie baking: Volunteer to help with pie prep from 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18 at Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley. To volunteer, email [email protected] or sign up at sweetpotatocomfortpie.org/volunteer-index-impact.
Community conversation: Reserve your free seat for a thoughtful gathering — Sweet Potato Comfort Pie: A Catalyst for Caring and Building Community — from 2–4:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19 at the Brookview Community Center in Golden Valley. See tinyurl.com/comfort-pie-2019 or call 612-865-1787 for more information.
Give: Donations can be sent directly to Golden Valley Community Foundation at gvcfoundation.org/make-a-donation. You must specify that the gift is for Sweet Potato Comfort Pie. Learn more at sweetpotatocomfortpie.org.
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.