Sweet potato souffle is as American as apple pie — or pumpkin pie, if you’re asking Jennifer Cumberbatch, a longtime Austin resident who is sharing a powerful message with her recently revived sweet potato torte company.
Pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving reminds us of the American Indians who helped the pilgrims plant their own roots here. Similarly, Cumberbatch’s sweet potato tarts are an act of honor for her mother, aunts, grandmothers and every woman who made sweet potato pies, casseroles and souffles in celebration of their heritage.
Cumberbatch’s torte is unique, and I don’t use that word often. The cakelike crust on the bottom and top envelop a sweet, smooth and buttery sweet potato filling.
But it’s the story Cumberbatch tells with her torte that is the most compelling.
Sweet potatoes have a long history in African-American cuisine, but that legacy is not often acknowledged outside the black community. Cumberbatch makes her torte to celebrate all of it, from the bellies the sweet potatoes kept full during slavery to the activists who were nourished during the civil rights movement.
At the turn of the 20th century, sweet potato pies helped Mary Jane McLeod Bethune raise money in Florida to start Bethune Cookman College, a historically black college still in existence.
Cumberbatch recalls hearing a recent talk in Austin from Robert Graetz, the white pastor who led a black congregation in Montgomery, Ala., during the bus boycott. He told a story about how food had been so influential in his early meetings with Martin Luther King Jr. The cooks, who were primarily women, created fellowship with that food, including sweet potato pies. That kind of fuel is a crucial piece of any activism.
Last year, as Cumberbatch considered her work in the church and community, she wondered if her sweet potato torte might be the key to her own activism: changing the narrative around African-American foodways and entrepreneurialism.
In November, Cumberbatch relaunched a baking company she had started about 30 years ago when one of her daughters was just an infant. The original recipe came from some of Cumberbatch’s mentoring pastors many decades ago, but she replaced the filling with her own souffle, a dish she strongly associates with her grandmother.
“I grew up eating sweet potato souffle,” she says. “Whipped potatoes with lots of butter. Eating it now invokes my grandmothers and my mother and her garden.”
By her mother’s garden, Cumberbatch refers to an idea from author Alice Walker about the many proverbial crops that are raised in our mother’s garden — the culture that our parents create and the meaning they assign to various parts of life.
Education, for instance, is something that Cumberbatch’s mother took seriously. She was a medical technologist with five children who went back to school, becoming one of the first African-American graduates of Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She later completed a doctoral degree in education from Pepperdine in California. As a principal at Santa Monica High School, her mother started a social justice academy and later became a professor at University of Southern California, where she recently retired.
Her dad went to divinity school and led various churches during her youth. Cumberbatch studied psychology at Brown University in Rhode Island, where she met her husband, Ashton. They moved to Austin in the early 1980s so he could attend law school and have carried on the tradition of mixing pastoral, community and family work.
Performance and storytelling also has always been part of Cumberbatch’s life, from her high school theater days, where she was cast as one of the first African-American leads in the spring musical, to her pastoral days in Austin. She continued to act in Austin, working with the late Boyd Vance and his Pro Arts Collective.
One of her favorite performances was James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner.” “The part was for Sister Margaret, a composite of Baldwin’s mother. She was a woman preacher, so that was a part I could handle. I got that part and my journey started anew” in performing and writing plays, she says. In recent years, she also has participated in a performance art piece with Toni Tipton-Martin that involved frying chicken on stage.
The Cumberbatches had four children, and just after daughter Virginia was born, Jennifer Cumberbatch decided to start selling those sweet potato tarts that her friends had first introduced to her.
“My husband and Bick Brown (founder of Hyde Park Bar & Grill) used to play basketball together over at that park on Enfield where the seasoned guys play basketball,” she says, emphasizing, with love, the seasoned part. “He said, ‘I play basketball with Bick. Why don’t I give him a call?’ “
Brown, who first opened Hyde Park Bar & Grill in 1982, opened his kitchen to Cumberbatch, and for several holiday seasons during the 1980s she was in the sweet potato business. She paid Brown in pies, and he, in turn, shared those slices with customers to encourage them to buy whole pies to take home for their holiday dinners.
“Their hours ended at midnight. I went in after that to bake the pies until about 6 a.m., then I would go home and nurse Virginia and then get in the car and deliver the pies,” Cumberbatch says.
After a few years, she and her husband had the chance to lead their own congregation, and the baking project had to take a hiatus.
Thirty years later, Cumberbatch is back in sweet potatoes.
Having lived near the Hey Cupcake location on Burnet Road, Cumberbatch felt called to reach out — not unlike the initial go-around with Hyde Park — to Frank Drew, who took over as CEO of Hey Cupcake a few years ago.
She now bakes the tortes out of their kitchen and sells through a website, cumberbatchsweettater.com. (She’ll be at Austin’s MLK Day Festival on Monday taking orders for them.)
“They’ve been so gracious. I keep saying, ‘I want to make my footprint small,’ and they are going out of their way to make it easier on me,” she says.
As Cumberbatch explained the need for more intentional work around race and entrepreneurialism, she shared her respect for Mikaila Ulmer, the 11-year-old founder of Me & the Bees lemonade who also sells a food product in homage to a family member. In Ulmer’s case, that’s her great-grandmother’s beloved lemonade, with just a hint of flaxseed water.
“Food connects our stories and our history and nostalgia,” Cumberbatch says. “That’s what I’ve tried to communicate through this pie. I want people to experience this as part of an American tradition. The same way you love pate or Italian pasta or French crepes, this torte reflects a part of America’s story in food. That connection to our roots is disappearing.”
Businesses need to make space for deeper work in the community, especially when it comes to supporting other entrepreneurs, says Misti Rashke Thomas, vice president of operations at Hey Cupcake.
“As a community, we are trying to Keep Austin Weird by keeping it real and authentic. That’s what Jennifer exudes,” she says. “Keeping that authenticity is what we’re trying to achieve as a community.”