Mr. Obama’s Sweet Potato Pie

Last year on the 2008 campaign trail, them-President-elect Barack Obama proclaimed his culinary love for sweet potato pie. The Root visited Henry’s Soul Cafe in Washington, D.C., which claims it has the “Best Pie on the Planet.” The original article is reprinted below. Watch the video here.

By his own admission, he is a man obsessed, this president-elect of ours. Women on the campaign trail have offered to cook for him, one of them declaring, “I’ll make you pie, baby!” And he has decreed that they must not just make him any pie, but that they must make him sweet potato pie. In fact, there should be a contest of said spud pies, a contest that he, and only he, will judge. This, with apologies to Sade, is no ordinary culinary love.

If it’s sweet potato pie that Barack Obama wants, then it is sweet potato pie that Barack Obama must have.

There are people who know this, and right now, in an obscure storefront in D.C.’s U Street corridor, these people are plotting and planning their own presidential domination. They want to conquer President-elect Obama, one slice at a time.

“My No. 1 job is to [woo] Obama,” says Jermaine Smith, president of Henry’s Soul Caf. “And it’s going to be as easy as giving him a slice.”

“I don’t think it’ll take a slice,” his sister, Henrietta Smith-Davis, manager of operations, says.

More like a piece of a slice.

“It’s almost inevitable,” Jermaine adds.

These are people who believe in the power of the pie. A sign in Henry’s Soul Caf says, “Best Pie on the Planet,” a bit of gustatory hubris, perhaps, but who are we to argue? (On the real, though, it’s seriously good pie.)

Walk into Henry’s Soul Caf right now, right before Thanksgiving, and you’ll see folks lining up to partake of those legendary pies. Folks who thought ahead and called in their holiday orders and folks who didn’t but are hoping that fate will intervene and grant them a pieor two. (The Smiths sell around 10,000 pies each Thanksgiving, from D.C. to California to China.) But even if they are turned away, there’s always the Smiths’ “Pie in a Kit,” to be obtained for $27 on their Web site.

Way, way back in the daythink 1968, pre-riotsHenry Smith, father of Jermaine and Henrietta and founder of Henry’s Soul Caf, figured that there had to be a better life than just hauling around the country in an 18-wheeler. He opened a little takeout joint on the westernmost tip of the famed U Street corridor and started peddling soul food, enlisting family members and female friends to help with the cooking.

One of his workers had a way with sweet potato pie. Except that she wouldn’t give up her recipe, not for anything. “I started cheating her,” Henry says. Each day, he’d ask her to make a fresh new batch of sweet potato pie. He’d hand her a new container of the ingredients she used, weighing the remainders at the end of each day. In time, he says, he’d figured out her recipe. Bit by bit, he moved her off the pies and started making them himself.

She never figured out his deceit.

“She’s dead and gone and still doesn’t know,” Henry says. (Personally, Henry can’t stand sweet potato pies, or candied yams, or any of that. He’s so over the whole potato thing. But as long as everybody else keeps eating them, he’s a happy man.)

When the riots hit D.C., Henry was ready. For days, he and his brother camped out at the store, with a “30 pistol and a shotgun” to keep them company. The liquor store right next door was trashed and so was the store next to him. But no one messed with Henry’s Soul Caf.

The business grew, even as the neighborhood around it changed from prosperous Black Belt to burned-out shell to druggie haven to gentrified Yuppieville. And Henry kept cranking out his piesteaching Henrietta and Jermaine at a very young age all his baking secretsand the people kept coming. Celebrities pull up in their stretch limos and send their drivers in. Michael Jordan is partial to the fried chicken and cornbread, while Steve Harvey can’t get enough of the barbecue. The Smiths have heard that Bill Clinton was a fan who scored his pies on the DL, but those are just rumors.

So as far as they know, Obama will be their first presidential conquest. They just know it. Forty years ago, Jermaine says, his father was a “black man with a vision” who created something big, his own “little empire.” It’s only fitting that another “black man with vision” graces their doorstep. It’s part of the evolution, generation passing on to the next generation, who then buys the pies.

So it’s just a matter of time. They’re so convinced of this, the Smiths say, that they know that they don’t have to do anything. If they bake it, Obama will come.

Teresa Wiltz is a regular contributor to The Root.

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