26 November, 2022, 22:57

Grab a slice of the South at Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies

There were at least three things I took note of when I traveled and ate through the deep South: nearly anything could be chicken fried, you get questionable looks if you refuse a glass of sweet tea, and they take their pies seriously.

I love the South. Good food and warm hospitality are equally as abundant. The decent folks making the food always insist you take another helping, have another plate, just one more drink, and are always prepared with, “So, did you save room for dessert?”

That’s why I was excited to learn that a small shop on the east side bakes and sells southern-inspired sweet potato pies. Just sweet potato pies. That’s it. Immediately, I perked up and had to investigate.

Grandma Jones' Sweet Potato Pies

Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies isn’t easy to find. Having almost no internet presence except for an online account with a few photos and literally no address or basic information, I was able to obtain a phone number. No one answered.

The lengthy voicemail message instructed me how to order her pies, when to pick them up, and then thanked me for buying her pies. My interest peaked even further as some kind of deep secret and almost underground operation could only mean one thing: these have to be the best sweet potato pies in Tucson — perhaps anywhere.

The day arrived to receive my order and I made the long trek to 29th and Rosemont. There it was, in a strip mall equipped with a variety of faith churches, a small sandwich board indicating the business and pickup hours. I then parked and made my way inside.

Grandma Jones' Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Shena McDuffie of Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies is rather small, with various gifts for sale and a large “Seattle” sign to the left as you walk in. An extremely welcoming lady by the name of Shena McDuffie greeted me and was quick to answer my question, “So, what is all this?”

McDuffie explained that she began making pies with her grandmother when she was a little girl growing up in Seattle (which explains the large city name sign on the wall). Grandma herself hails from Mississippi and brought her love of Southern cooking to Washington when she and her family relocated.

McDuffie then laid on a morsel of information that to this day I have a hard time comprehending.

“Grandma had about one hundred kids,” she said. “Her own children, grandkids, great grandkids, and others that spent time with her. That’s a lot of kids! She was so special to all of us that people gave her the name Sugar. I never called her Sugar. In fact, I was so close to her that I used to call her mom.”

McDuffie moved to Tucson from Seattle more than 30 years ago and kept in touch with her grandma, or mom, especially when she needed a specific recipe. At the age of 89, Grandma Jones passed and that year McDuffie made 89 sweet potato pies in honor of every year that she was with us. However, she didn’t sell those pies. She just passed them around to anyone that wanted one so they can celebrate her grandma’s life.

Grandma Jones' Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

People started asking when she was making more and if she would eventually start selling her sweet potato pies. At the time, she was a bus driver for TUSD but when she retired the idea to open up a sweet potato pie shop began to take hold.

“Did I think that when I started making pies with my grandma I would be here today? No,” said McDuffie. “It was not something that I was working toward. All I can say is that it has been quite the journey and being here now has been a blessing.”

At first, Grandma’s Sweet Potato Pies opened in June 2022 by word of mouth and by appointment only. Recently, she’s been taking walk-in customers (if there are enough pies to go around).

Grandma Jones' Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

The recipe for her pies is a secret that only she and Grandma Jones truly know about, but it is a traditional Southern-style sweet potato pie we’re talking about here. There are a lot of people out there that don’t like or appreciate a real downhome sweet potato pie, while others can’t get enough and are willing to travel miles out of their way to get one.

Guess which category I fall into.

“I’d say about 97% of people that buy my pies love them,” she said. “Sweet potato pies aren’t for everyone. If you don’t like pumpkin pie then you may not like sweet potato pie. It’s a texture thing, I think. I do not get offended if you do not like my pies.”

The response to her sweet potato pies has been positive enough that she is expanding her tiny dessert empire into offering more. Coming soon: pecan squares, peach cobbler, and ice cream sandwiches.

Grandma Jones' Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

I was lucky enough to be gifted a not-yet-on-the-menu ice cream sandwich. Let me tell you, on the hot and sticky day I hung out with her, that itty bitty bite of home-baked yum was an absolutely inviting necessity. It will all be worth the wait.

After thanking McDuffie and saying goodbye, I made my way to a small gathering of friends at a local hangout. It was here when I opened up the tin emblazed with the image of Grandma Jones herself and we collectively took a bite.

Grandma Jones' Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

The conversation paused as all that was to be said was either an embraced “mmm” or nothing at all; silence as you take the flavors and that texture in for sensory account. Attention fans of Southern sweet potato pies, this is indeed the perfect sweet potato pie made available right here in the Southwest. An absolute memory rake of past travels, stopping and eating in weathered shacks that boast lines for food — food that’s been passed down from generation to generation.

For me personally, the enjoyment of eating that pie ran a bit deeper because I knew the complete story behind it. I could imagine the hands of Grandma Jones, or Sugar as she was lovingly nicknamed, mixing, adding just enough cream, butter, and coconut, baking it to perfection, and then laying it out to cool before all of her kids dug in.

With that first bite, I imagined I was one of those kids. It made the experience even more memorable, happy to be partaking in a moment of a comforting treat made from the heart.

Yes, the pie was that good.

Now that I know how and where to find it, I’ll make the journey to this hidden gem to get another one.

And another.

Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies is located at 4949 E 29th St. To make an order, call (520) 999-1127 and follow Grandma Jones’ Sweet Potato Pies on Facebook for more information. 

It was a Sonoran hot dog that made Mark switch from music journalism to food writing when he moved to Tucson from San Francisco in 2006. He hasn’t been the same since.