Commercials full of smiling families celebrating generations of traditions have always made me a bit envious during the holidays. My family can’t trace our lineage much past my Delta-born great-grandmother, an unfortunate reality for many folks in the African American diaspora. Watching my friends bounce from house to house, collecting plates of food and loving memories of extended family, always sparks a little jealousy, too. But I’ve found peace as I’ve gotten older and realized that my family, albeit very small, has created our own traditions to indulge in—including, come fall and winter, my grandmother’s butternut squash pies.
Granny Sawda first learned about the pie during her time in New York City with the Nation of Islam in the 1970s, as part of their vegetable-focused diet. My grandmother was used to eating seasonally—pumpkin, squash, and sweet potatoes—but the butternut squash provided a new, healthier (but still naturally sweet) substitute for holiday treats. When she came back home to Charleston, South Carolina, years later, she brought her recipe with her. The first time I tasted the pie had to be before my earliest memories—we begin to eat the soft, pone-like filling as toddlers in my family—and we had it so often, I mistakenly assumed the dessert was a normal part of other people’s holiday spreads. Under my grandmother’s watchful eye, my aunts and I learned how to make the pie ourselves, over years of tedious labor. But it just never quite tastes the same as when Granny bakes one. We’ve all moved around the country as we’ve gotten older, away from our home in the Lowcountry, but we still call my grandma to walk us step by step through making the pies, ensuring we don’t miss a detail—an opportunity to enjoy a slice of home and family no matter where life takes us.
Granted, when new friends hear “squash pie,” often their noses turn up and their faces pucker, as they contemplate why anyone would make a sweet pie from squash. But once I hand them a slice, slightly warm, a small scoop of cold vanilla ice cream dolloped on the side, a sparkle in their eye pops. The butternut squash often conjures for converts pumpkin or sweet potato pies, but with a different texture and taste—less starchy, a little sweeter, with a tang—as the scent of vanilla and nutmeg hits their noses and envelops them in a familiar feeling. Anyone who tries a piece tends
to want one every year.
That enthusiasm always makes me feel good, even in uncertain times. And while my family can’t trace its history back very far, the fact that this strange pie is my grandmother’s own tradition, instead of someone else’s, makes me appreciate even more that I now get to carry on the recipe and share it with others. For the recipe, click here.