Many of us enjoy pies made from pumpkins or Michigan grown apples or cherries this time of year. But a staple in many African-American households is gaining popularity within the Lansing Fire Department because of a Captain who can bake!
On a recent Monday night at Fire Station 44 in south Lansing, Michigan State University basketball played on the big screen in the living room. At the same time, there was commotion in the kitchen.
We first learned about Captain David Odom Jr.'s penchant for pies from a Lansing Fire Department Tweet. So we had to check it out in person. We arrived as he drained boiling hot water from a huge pot holding six large sweet potatoes.
"In my family, there's always been sweet potatoe [pies], we don't eat pumpkin pie," said Odom. "I've never tasted a pumpkin pie."
The history of sweet potato pie is truly an American story. The sweet potato, which is not a yam, was first cultivated in Peru. According to The Washington Post and other sources... white as well as enslaved black cooks in the U-S south used sweet potatoes for recipes because they were easier to grow than pumpkins.
Post-slavery.. the popularity grew because a single potato could make an entire pie.
After adding butter, white sugar, brown sugar and eggs, Odom began mashing the pie filling together. If you were expecting to read a strict recipe here.. you're going to be disappointed.
"I don't really measure," said Odom. "I taste it at the end. I've done it enough. I know how it's supposed to taste."
Capt. Odom grew up in Flint and has made pies for 15 years. Family is his inspiration.
"This pie and my mother’s lemon merengue have always been my two favorite pies," said Odom.
After adding spices, vanilla and condensed milk Capt. Odom whips it all together.
"I want it to be pourable – kinda like of a milkshake," said Odom.
No detail is overlooked including the pie crust.
"I always take a fork and poke holes in the pie shells in the crust so they can crisp up a little bit," said Odom. "And my mother always told me 'always rub egg whites around your pie shells, keeps them from burning."
Next he opens the door and slides four pies inside.
Capt. Odom says he never considered firefighting a career until he toured a station with his cousin who also Lansing firefighter. After serving a few years in Flint, he came to Lansing 15 years ago.
“It was a blessing from God if you asked me because I never would have thought I would be doing this," said Capt. Odom. "I always wanted to help people."
A crew returns from a call right as fresh pies sit cooling right after Odom brought them out of the oven.
Firefighter Jason Knopps walks into the kitchen after returning from a call.
"I’ve never had his sweet potato pie before I’m looking forward to it," said Knopps. "That's pretty good."
Capt. Odom reflected on what his mother thought of his baking.
"She said 'I think you can make them better than I do now'," said Capt. Odom.