Walk into Henry’s Soul Café right now, right before Thanksgiving, and you’ll see folks lining up to partake of those legendary pies. Folks who thought ahead and called in their holiday orders and folks who didn’t but are hoping that fate will intervene and grant them a pie—or two. (The Smiths sell around 10,000 pies each Thanksgiving, from D.C. to California to China.) But even if they are turned away, there’s always the Smiths’ “Pie in a Kit,” to be obtained for $27 on their Web site.
Way, way back in the day—think 1968, pre-riots—Henry Smith, father of Jermaine and Henrietta and founder of Henry’s Soul Café, figured that there had to be a better life than just hauling around the country in an 18-wheeler. He opened a little takeout joint on the westernmost tip of the famed U Street corridor and started peddling soul food, enlisting family members and female friends to help with the cooking.
One of his workers had a way with sweet potato pie. Except that she wouldn’t give up her recipe, not for anything. “I started cheating her,” Henry says. Each day, he’d ask her to make a fresh new batch of sweet potato pie. He’d hand her a new container of the ingredients she used, weighing the remainders at the end of each day. In time, he says, he’d figured out her recipe. Bit by bit, he moved her off the pies and started making them himself.
She never figured out his deceit.
“She’s dead and gone and still doesn’t know,” Henry says. (Personally, Henry can’t stand sweet potato pies, or candied yams, or any of that. He’s so over the whole potato thing. But as long as everybody else keeps eating them, he’s a happy man.)
When the riots hit D.C., Henry was ready. For days, he and his brother camped out at the store, with a “30 pistol and a shotgun” to keep them company. The liquor store right next door was trashed and so was the store next to him. But no one messed with Henry’s Soul Café.
The business grew, even as the neighborhood around it changed from prosperous Black Belt to burned-out shell to druggie haven to gentrified Yuppieville. And Henry kept cranking out his pies—teaching Henrietta and Jermaine at a very young age all his baking secrets—and the people kept coming. Celebrities pull up in their stretch limos and send their drivers in. Michael Jordan is partial to the fried chicken and cornbread, while Steve Harvey can’t get enough of the barbecue. The Smiths have heard that Bill Clinton was a fan who scored his pies on the DL, but those are just rumors.
So as far as they know, Obama will be their first presidential conquest. They just know it. Forty years ago, Jermaine says, his father was a “black man with a vision” who created something big, his own “little empire.” It’s only fitting that another “black man with vision” graces their doorstep. It’s part of the evolution, generation passing on to the next generation, who then buys the pies.
So it’s just a matter of time. They’re so convinced of this, the Smiths say, that they know that they don’t have to do anything. If they bake it, Obama will come.
Teresa Wiltz is a regular contributor to The Root.