Lois Porter took a beloved family recipe and developed a sweet potato product that takes some of the time out of cooking with these nutritious tubers.
With the seasonal shift to fall and Thanksgiving around the corner, her perishable product was recently picked up by both Berkeley Bowls and makes its debut tomorrow at the Beehive Market. It is also available at Piedmont Grocery and hits the aisles soon at Whole Foods in Oakland. Under her Mamie & Makhi’s Sweet Potato Pie label, Porter makes pie batter that can be used as a base for biscuits, pancakes, fritters — even ice cream — and, pie, of course.
Until this time last year, Porter made her pie filling mainly for family and friends. She decided to test the market and held a launch party at The Wooden Duck. Two months ago, she left her job as a director at Aquatic Park School to focus full-time on her small batch batter business.
The single mom, 44, who has an adult daughter, lives with her young son in South Berkeley. We talked earlier this week at Sweet Adeline’s Bakeshop.
How did you come up with the name for your business?
My father came to live with me about eight years ago because he was sick. He had high blood pressure, kidney failure, and heart problems. He wanted me to cook his favorite dishes, things like greens with ham hocks and fried chicken. I told him he couldn’t eat like that anymore. He wanted recipes that his mother, my grandmother Mamie, used to make. So I found the recipe for her sweet potato pie and I started making it for him. It made him so happy.
I was pregnant with my son at the time. When Makhi was a baby I used to make pie for his grandfather and scrape the sweet potato filling out for him.
My father was so proud of that pie and so enamored with his new grandson. He was delighted to help me develop the product. We named it after Mamie & Makhi. My father, son, and I all went together to get sweet potatoes (actually yams) from Art Davis, the older African American farmer at the farmers’ market. I’d experiment with different ingredients and different ways of making the batter. My dad died eight years ago at the age of 68. He’d be thrilled I started this business.
Did you ever consider calling yourself Lois the Pie Queen?
Oh, no, there is already one of those and she is legendary. Though, funnily enough, that’s what kids called me in school — and I didn’t bake pies back then.
It has only eight ingredients: sweet potatoes (and/or yams), nutmeg, vanilla, eggs, cream, butter, sugar, and salt. Everything is organic, except the cream, which is now actually evaporated milk, it helps with the consistency of the product. My new labels will reflect that change. I also bake my sweet potatoes, which allows the natural sugars in the vegetables to come out, so I don’t need to use as much sugar as my grandmother, who boiled the tubers, did. And I use Beauregard yams because I find they give me the texture, color, and taste I want.
What was it like growing up in Berkeley in a biracial family?
I feel blessed to be biracial. At the time my parents got together, they couldn’t marry; my mother was white and my father African-American. When my parents split up, my father moved around the corner, so he was always a presence in my life growing up.
My mother, who died of cancer at 58, told my sisters and I: “You are young, black women. That’s how the world is going to look at you.”
She wanted to make sure she gave us a solid black experience growing up, even if it was through her white eyes. She took us to black ballet performances, we wore dashikis, grew Afros, and took Afro-Haitian dance class. There was a lot of talk at home about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman. But we also went to see our white relatives in Massachusetts and spent time in the summer on Martha’s Vineyard.
We attended St. Joseph’s, a black Catholic school that went to the 8th grade. I didn’t feel black enough. The kids down the street used to chase us and call us zebras.
It wasn’t until I got to Berkeley High School that I had to decide whether I was white or black. I chose to identify as African American.
Where do you see yourself going with your new food business?
I want to build my business by focusing on distribution. And I want to start a Mamie & Makhi’s Foundation, to help young women, particularly young African-American women, develop their own food products and pass on family recipes and food traditions. I want it to be a community kitchen, like La Cocina in San Francisco, which mainly serves Latina women.