Washington Post travel writer Frances Parkinson Keyes attended concerts and toured gardens on her 1934 visit to Charleston, but it was a 2 o’clock dinner that left her speechless.
“What epicure can sufficiently sing the praises not only of the she-crab soup, but of the pecan pie?” she demanded. “Of green corn and shrimp pudding? Of cooter stew and sweet potato pone?”
Sweet potato pone is made across the South. Recipes for the grated sweet potato pudding vary wildly according to the cook’s location and means. “Creole variations often contain a generous shot of black pepper, which I have come to love,” April McGreger writes in “Sweet Potatoes,” an entry in the University of North Carolina Press’ Savor the South series. “Well-heeled versions might call for orange blossom or rose water.” The only thing true of every pone is its preparer firmly believes his or her grandmother made a better version.
“I have tried many recipes, but none is like Grandmother’s,” Cathalene Cockfield told The Charleston News and Courier in 1969, specifying that her grandmother’s recipe dated back to 1800-1860.
“They’ll probably never taste as good as they did when I was a little girl,” The Charleston News and Courier in 1971 quoted Mrs. Vernon Allen as saying. Her mother made sweet potato pone on a wood-burning stove.
Pone nostalgia isn’t a modern phenomenon. The dish is so associated with the region that Rebel Yell bourbon in the 1960s burnished its Southern credentials by offering buyers a free recipe booklet featuring sweet potato pone. It also was the object of sentimentalism in sweet potato-flush Charleston as far back as 1918.
“It is an old-fashioned Southern delicacy, about which you girls know very little,” a Charleston News contributor wrote in a column styled as a lecture to “Mary.” “I suppose I was brought up on it, however, and always liked it.”
The earliest published recipes for sweet potato pone typically call for sugar, buttermilk, ginger and molasses. In 1850, “Mrs. Bliss’ Practical Cookbook” recommended adding salt and grated orange peel, foreshadowing the citrus-inflected recipe provided to Aaron Siegel of Home Team BBQ.
“The first time I made it, I was like ‘What am I doing?’ ” says Siegel, who shared a picture of the soggy pile of potato shreds that resulted when he followed the provided recipe precisely.
Siegel blamed the sweet potatoes for bringing so much moisture to the mix.
“At first, I thought it was oil, or that the butter had broken, but then I realized it was all water from the sweet potatoes,” he says.
After talking with his wife, Siegel decided to first roast the sweet potatoes. For flavor, he increased the amount of egg and added rosemary and thyme to create a “nice little savory situation.”
“I totally cut out the orange zest,” he says. “I felt like it tasted like dishwasher soap. And I cut down on the sugar big time: Sweet potatoes have so much natural sugar that it didn’t really need much.”
Siegel first cooked the pone in a cast-iron skillet greased with bacon fat, then baked it in a 300-degree oven.
“I brought it over to a friend’s house and gave some out. It was delicious. I’d eat it for sure.”