Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Sweet Potato Pie King - Celebrated.

There are certain flavors that are truly unique to Arkansas -- and a select few can be used to define a city in our state.  In Little Rock, you could nail it down to Sim's Barbecue, Burge's smoked turkey salad, Lassis Inn's buffalo ribs, Franke's Cafeteria's eggplant casserole -- and Say's sweet potato pies.

Now, those pies, long touted by Robert "Say" McIntosh, are about as legendary as he is.  If I were to attempt an adequate biography, we'd be here all day.  I will say, "Say" allegedly got his nickname because he always took every opportunity he could to voice his opinion.  He gained a magnificent
reputation in the 1970s for taking toys to underprivileged black children at Christmas here in Litte Rock, and he's been connected to the holiday here ever since.  If you'd like to read more about his life, check out the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

What I can tell you is that the pies bearing his name are a staple.  The famed McIntosh pie dates back to 1962, according to the website for the restaurant now run by his grandson, Robert McIntosh III.  They're still bright, almost glowing in nature, and they still have that strong orange-meets-vanilla tone to their smooth flavor.

A couple of years ago, I was honored to be asked to judge at a brand new competition bearing his name.  The "Say It Ain't Say's" Sweet Potato Pie Contest is now in its third year, and I'll be back yet again for one of the most rigorous roles I play each year: sampling and weighing in on which takes the trophy.

The event is part of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center Holiday Open House. I absolutely need to share more with you about this rather unique and interesting facility at Ninth and Broadway downtown.  What I'll share now, though, is what it was like last year.

When I arrived, set-up was still underway. I love walking into the auditorium on the third floor of this building. It's been beautifully recreated. See, the original structure burned several years ago, but five years ago the reconstruction was complete, and today the facility hosts a museum with changing exhibits, a bookstore, meeting and learning spaces and this magnificent auditorium with balcony seating.

The prizes were on display -- a collection that included aprons and these fine boxed pie sets with the date and event inscribed on a plaque.

Many of the competitors already had their pies out and were working to set up for the public tasting.  A selection of those pies:

Mitchell Family Sweet Potato Pie by Debrah Mitchell.

Mary Emma's Sweet Potato Pie by Mavis Jones.

Roasted Sweet Potato Pie by Charlotte Marks.

Sweet Potato Pie Cupcakes by Michelle Smith.

Sweet Potato Pie Cheesecake by Sondra Strong.

My Mom's Sweet Potato Pie by Marion McGee.

Jamaican Spiced Rum Sweet Potato Pie by Cathi Compton.

Joyce Johnson's Coconut Sweet Potato Pie -- not entered in competition.

Madear's Sweet Potato Pie by Joyce Johnson.

Mama's Homemade Pie by Mama's Homemade Pie Shop.

Sweet Potato Pie with Candied Pecan Crunch by Maddie's Place.

Sinfully Sweet Sweet Potato Pie by Sweet Love (Kelli Marks).

Pecan Shortbread and Sweet Potato Pie by Latrice Catering and Design.
Woo Pie Sooie by Kamiya Merrick.

The judging table.

In case you were wondering why and how this contest came about, a few years back the folks at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center decided a fantastic way to celebrate was to add a little pie. And honoring Mr. McIntosh was a great way to accomplish that.  Each year, a select panel of judges and the attendees all vote on the best pies and winners are chosen and lauded.

But how do you divide up all that pie so everyone gets a sample?  A whole lot of spoons, that's how.

Joyce Johnson's spoonfuls.

Cathi Compton served up her Jamaican Spiced Rum Sweet Potato Pie bites
on chocolate dipped spoons.
Debrah Mitchell utilized crust cutouts to make sure everyone got a taste
of her handmade crust with their bite of pie.

Whole pies were delivered to the judges table, where a
panel of five would deliberate and choose a winner.  The
2013 judges included Donna Terrell of FOX 16, food
enthusiast Pamela Smith, Power 92's Broadway Joe and
the legendary Robert "Say" McIntosh.  And myself.
And then there's music... so much music. Beware - this piece might get you in the holiday mood.

Frankly, judging isn't easy.  Few pies can hold a candle to those fantastic Say's pies... and those that do have to be carefully weighed on all merits.  Sadly, I can't share the flavors themselves with you of these marvelous pies -- but I can let you see them again.
Another look at some of the pies:  Mama's Homemade Sweet Potato Pie.

Cathi Compton's Jamaican Spiced Rum Sweet Potato Pie.

The Sinfully Sweet Sweet Potato Pie from Sweet Love.

The Sweet Potato Pie with Candied Pecan Crunch from Maddie's Place.
Pecan Shortbread Sweet Potato Pie from Latrice Catering and Design.

Kamiya Merrick's Woo Pie Sooie (shown upside down -- see, it's a

Mary Emma's Sweet Potato Pie from Mavis Jones.
Michelle Smith's Sweet Potato Pie Cupcakes.

Mitchell Family Sweet Potato Pie.

Sondra Strong's Sweet Potato Pie Cheesecake.

My Mom's Sweet Potato Pie by Marion McGee.

Madear's Sweet Potato Pie by Joyce Johnson.
Roasted Sweet Potato Pie by Charlotte Marks.
A packed house for this event!
This certainly wasn't an easy competition to judge -- with so many worthy pies.  But the crowd was friendly, the pies were all marvelous, and we were treated to the likes of the Central High Madrigals...

The Central High Madrigals on stage.
And the Gloryland Pastor's Choir.
The Gloryland Pastor's Choir.
In fact, get yourself in the holiday mood and watch this video of the Gloryland Pastor's Choir.  They were phenomenal!

After all the votes were tabulated, the winners were announced.  Sondra
Strong won the people's choice award for her Sweet Potato Pie Cheesecake.

Kamiya Merrick took second place in the amateur division for her
Woo Pie Sooie.

Michelle Smith won first place honors in the amateur
division with her Sweet Potato Pie Cupcakes.

The second place prize for best professional pie went to Latrice Catering
and Design for the Pecan Shortbread Sweet Potato Pie.

And the winner of the professional division?
Kelli Marks for her Sinfully Sweet Sweet Potato
Pie by Sweet Love.

Each of the bakers donated a toy for the Stop The
Violence Campaign, which were accepted by
Robert "Say" McIntosh.

He wrapped up the event succinctly, sharing how
great the day was and thanking everyone for coming.

Have I got you in the mood for this year's event?  I sure hope so.  The "Say It Ain't Say's" Sweet Potato Pie Contest and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center's Open House will be held Sunday, December 7th, 2-5 p.m.  Get there early for a good seat and an excellent shot at tasting all the pies.

For more information on the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, please check out this website.

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