The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook
A couple of weeks ago at John King Books, I found a pamphlet called The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook published by Perpetual Soul Saving Mission For All Nations, Inc. © 1970. Perpetual Soul Mission was an aid society founded by the Rev. Charleszetta Waddles (aka Mother Waddles) in 1957 to provide 24-hour emergency services to Detroiters in need, including food, shelter, clothing, medical and dental care, legal aid, transportation, job placement, training programs, and help for drug addicts.
Waddles also ran a kitchen on Cass Avenue which served 70,000 meals a year for 35 cents each, or “free if you have no money.” And she hosted a radio hour every weekday morning on WCHD-FM. She doesn’t sound like the kind of woman who sat still very often. According to a note on the inside front cover, she only found the time to write this cookbook while confined to a hospital bed after falling down a flight of stairs.
There are prayers and poems interspersed with recipes for oyster pot pie, chitterlings, beef gumbo, and hot dogs with spaghetti. The soup section is prefaced, “In the upper crust sections of each and every town, the serving of soup is quite reknown, but all you have to do in the ghetto sections of the same town is to mention soup and you might get knocked down.” There are nine recipes and one poem about neck bones, short meditations on what it means to be a “a true brother” or “grass roots people,” and a poem titled “The Devout Weight Watcher” describing a family party as a form of torture:
Look at uncle Bill eating all that meat
Boy, I wish I could have about 10 Bar-B-Que pigs feet
They said because of calories, I can’t eat what I please
Therefore, I just have myself some cottage cheese
And in the very back, there’s the full text of a resolution signed by Governor William H. Milliken proclaiming Mother Waddles week:
WHEREAS The estimable and loquacious Mother Waddles has led this community in a fuller understanding of the mandate to, “Love Thy Neighbor as Thy Self,” and,
. . . .
WHEREAS Mother Waddles is in constant need of assistance, for money, for meat and potatoes, for clothing and shelter, and,
WHEREAS Mother Waddles’ dedication and commitment commands all of us to meet her half-way*
Be it therefore Resolved that October 19 through 26, 1970, be declared Mother Waddles’ week throughout the glorious State of Michigan, and, on this day let every citizen become cognizant of quest [sic] of this lovely lady who in a simple way labors for the gains of her neighbors and the glorification of her society.
*I love the idea of declaring an honorary week as a method of meeting someone “half-way.”
What the Heck is Pone?
Before the Mother Waddles cookbook, I’d only ever heard of corn pone, which usually refers to a southern-style corn bread made without any eggs or milk and traditionally cooked in a cast iron skillet. The word “pone” was apparently derived from the Powhatan word apan, meaning “something baked.” It was adopted by English-speaking settlers in Virginia to refer to what was also called “Indian bread,” or bread made from corn instead of wheat. But I can’t figure out how it also came to refer to what turns out to be a custardy sweet potato casserole, which, unlike corn pone, is full of eggs, milk, and sugar.
Mother Waddles’ recipe actually calls for so much sugar that' I’m almost certain it’s a typo: 1 1/2 lbs (3 3/8 cups) in a recipe with only 2 lbs sweet potato? The rest of the recipes in the book give sugar amounts by the cup and some other recipes for sweet potato pone call for as little as 1/2 cup of sugar (or 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup molasses) for comparable quantities of sweet potato. I’m guessing the recipe was supposed to read 1 1/2 cups not pounds. The other recipes also claim that sweet potato pone originated as a 19th Century street food in New Orleans also called pain patate (potato bread), so perhaps this “pone” comes from pain not apan.
Most recipes call for spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and most describe it as firm enough to slice and eat by hand. According to one cranky commenter on the recipe for Jazz Fest Sweet Potato Pone on Food.com, the “real deal” also involves coconut and raisins and a “darker topping that isn’t all sugar.” A Times-Picayune article says many home recipes call for a hefty dose of black pepper to give it a little kick. Some more recent versions add brandy and orange zest.
I used Mother Waddles’ recipe as a base, cut the sugar to 1 cup, added 1/4 cup molasses and a cup of raisins soaked in orange juice and topped it with a graham cracker & pecan streusel. It definitely wasn’t firm enough to eat by hand, although it might be if I’d used half as much milk & eggs, like some of the other recipes linked above. Instead, what it reminded me of most was bread pudding, but straddling the line between a sweet side dish and dessert. It also makes enough to feed a lot of hungry people, which I suspect was probably exactly what Mother Waddles had in mind.
Recipe: Sweet Potato Pone (adapted from Mother Waddles and assorted others)
- 2 –2 1/2 lbs sweet potato (about 2 very large or 3 medium)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup dark molasses (not blackstrap)
- 6 eggs*
- 4 cups milk*
- 1/2 cup melted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon mace and/or allspice
- 2 teaspoons salt
- juice and zest of a large lemon
- 1 cup raisins (optional)
- 1 cup orange juice (optional)
*For a less custardy, possibly hand-holdable version, reduce to 3 eggs and 2 cups milk
- 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 cup melted butter
1. Soak the raisins, if using, in the orange juice for a few hours. A splash of bourbon or brandy would also be welcome.
2. Peel & grate the potatoes and cover with milk to prevent browning.
3. Generously butter a 9x13 or 2 quart baking dish and preheat the oven to 250 F.
4. Beat the eggs well and add the rest of the ingredients, including the sweet potatoes and milk, mixing well to combine. Pour into the prepared dish.
5. Combine the streusel ingredients in a bowl and mix until crumbly. Sprinkle on top of the sweet potato mixture.
6. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until browned on top and set in the center.
7. Let stand for at least 30 minutes before serving.