Brigida Goree of Olathe was born and raised in Shreveport, La. She moved to Kansas City in 1981 to take a job at Bendix (now Honeywell) after earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Goree and her husband, Terence, originally from Baton Rouge, continued their Southern cooking traditions by preparing Thanksgiving each year with a group of friends also transplanted from the South. See Goree’s recipe for sweet potato pie below. This conversation took place in Goree’s home.
What are your earliest memories of Thanksgiving in Louisiana?
I come from a large family. I have four brothers and three sisters. My cousins lived close by also, and we had really close neighbors and we all got together for Thanksgiving.
My grandmother lived out in the country, so before Thanksgiving my brothers would go out to her house and kill a hog and make hog’s head cheese.
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Back at the house, we would start with the desserts a couple of days before Thanksgiving. My great-grandmother used to make a cake that didn’t have icing. It was a three-layer white cake from scratch with apple jelly between the layers and coconut on top. She made the jelly, too, because she made a lot of preserves. There was always sweet potato pie, and my mother made candy every year using pecans and cane syrup. The pecans came from a big tree in the backyard.
She also made bread pudding and rice pudding and banana pudding from scratch. My mother would cook the milk, and take a big bowl — she didn’t have a mixer — and she would rest this huge bowl with the butter and sugar under her armpit and stir and stir while she was watching television. It was this thing I always remember seeing her do that people don’t do anymore.
When all the desserts were done we would set them out in the dining room and the table would get set. We would do all that before we started the dinner part.
What was the dinner part like?
My mom did most of the cooking, the cornbread dressing and the turkey. And we would always have seafood gumbo. There was cranberry sauce.
The side dishes would be macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and collard greens with plenty of cayenne pepper. We like everything spiced up. Like Emeril (Lagasse) says, “Bam! Kick it up a notch.” That’s how we cook.
My mom made candied yams the old-fashioned way. She would cut the sweet potatoes and put them in a cast iron skillet with butter on the bottom and dump sugar — white sugar and brown sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg — and turn the fire on under the skillet and let it slowly cook until the juice that came out of the potatoes mixed with the butter and sugar and turned into a really thick syrup. She’d let the syrup get really really dark. I still make them that way and we always run out.
Oh, and my grandmother made homemade plum wine every year for Thanksgiving. It was delicious.
When I spoke with you last week, I asked if you would share your recipe for sweet potato pie with us. Do you have it written down?
I don’t measure, I just cook. But I got with a girlfriend and we put it down on paper.
The thing is, we don’t just make one pie. Coming from a big family I never learned how to cook small portions. So this recipe makes about eight pies (laughs).
What do you miss the most about Louisiana?
Growing up being surrounded by food in the yard. We had a fig tree, a persimmon tree, a plum tree, a pecan tree. We had gardens — we always had food around the house. That’s what I miss the most, having the natural foods all around so I could just go outside and enjoy eating them.
Goree Family’s Sweet Potato Pie
Makes enough filling for 6-8 pies. Recipe is for filling only.
8 large sweet potatoes
4 sticks butter
2 cups sugar
3/4 can evaporated milk
1 large box cook and serve (not instant) vanilla pudding mix
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Prepare crusts and place crusts in pie pans.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Boil potatoes with skins on until tender. Peel while they are hot. Place the potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Add butter, sugar, evaporated milk, pudding mix and mix with an electric mixer. Add the eggs one at a time and continue mixing. Add remaining ingredients and mix well.
Pour the mixture into the pie crusts, filling each crust 2/3 of the way to the rim.
Place the pies in the oven for 45 minutes to one hour or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Place the pies on a cooling rack and cool to room temperature before serving.