Story by Beth Jones
Photographs by Carol Banks
Rose McGee is a woman who understands that food provides both energy, and meaning to people’s lives. As owner, and sole employee of Deep Roots Desserts, McGee is a woman of action (try pulling all-night baking sessions on both of your days off), and reflection about what her baking means.
Take, for instance, the company name, Deep Roots. When McGee and a former business partner were working at St. Paul Academy, they planned to bring in samples of sweet potato pie for Black History Month. McGee thought, “Since we’re getting this thing going, we need a catchy little name.” Around that time, McGee and her son were riding in the car listening to a rap that struck a chord with her. A particular line popped out that said, “Nappy roots are going to be OK.”
“It was talking about the struggle that black people go through,” McGee explains. “I kept thinking about that, and the ‘roots’ just came out. I just wrote it-Deep Roots.” McGee notes, “It had such a carry-over meaning. People who know sweet potatoes automatically think I named it because a sweet potato is a root. But it’s more than that. It’s about heritage. It’s about the richness of traditions. It’s just deep. Food has that kind of impact in every culture.”
McGee has written a story about the history of Deep Roots. “Somewhere in (the process) I began writing what this really means to me. I thought about my grandmother and my great-grandmother who raised me. The tradition of cooking is something that has been very much the core of our culture, whether you’re rich or poor. And this whole thing with the sweet potato became so fascinating to me.” McGee now has an agent, and is working on a book about the cultural importance of the sweet potato pie.
When McGee began selling her desserts at the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market two years ago, she was surprised by people’s attitudes about her product. “Particularly black people’s attitudes,” she says. “I didn’t realize how sacred this dessert was to people.” On her first day at the Market she set out samples. “A black woman came by, and I couldn’t even get her to stop,” she explains. “A couple of other black women came by and they looked at it and just kind of snarled at it. That’s how the first day went for the most part.” McGee tells of one man’s loyalty to his mother’s sweet potato pie. “This young black couple came by, and the woman tried a sample and said, ‘This is good. Honey, come try this.'” He said, “I don’t eat anybody’s sweet potato pie but my mama’s.” McGee told him, “You’re welcome to try it. You don’t have to buy it.” He came up and took a deep breath, brought the sample to his mouth, stopped, and said, “I can’t do it,” and walked off. The wife looked at McGee, stunned. McGee simply said, “I understand.”
“It wasn’t insulting anymore. Now when an older black woman tastes it and says it’s good, it really makes me feel good.”
McGee has become part of the community of the Farmers’ Market, working with other vendors to create new products, and supporting each other’s businesses. McGee even buys her sweet potatoes at the Market. She explains, “When I started selling pies, I had a young man who would buy one of my desserts every week and one day he said, ‘Have you met Mr. Hall?’ He took me over and introduced me, and he was just wonderful.” McGee began ordering sweet potatoes from him each week, and he would deliver them right to her house. Hall, who died last October, started selling at the market when he entered retirement. His sons are now running the business.
It would seem that running Deep Roots Desserts would take up all of her time, but McGee, who is a teacher at the Urban League Academy in South Minneapolis, has made time to bring food into her classroom. The Urban League Academy is an alternative high school for students who are having difficulties in traditional school settings. McGee admits that when she started, she was called every name in the book. “That’s just the way it is, and nobody was interested in listening to me. But I learned it’s not personal . . . the only way to get to them is to establish a relationship.” To do that, McGee brought in a bowl of candy, and students began dropping by her office throughout the day. This year she tried apples, and the response has been good.
|Rose, making pies|
Last spring, McGee began a nine-week girls’ program, which took students into schools to read to young children. The girls also read Alice Walker’s classic The Color Purple, and participated in role playing and discussion of the book.
When McGee first gathered the girls for the program, she was adamant that at the end of the nine weeks they would celebrate with a tea party. McGee laughs, “The girls said, ‘We’re ghetto. We don’t have tea parties.'” There was also some concern about having to eat cucumber sandwiches.
McGee invited all the women on staff to join the party. She brought in her own dishes and tea sets, and had the students prepare the food, and decorate the school cafeteria in pink tablecloths. One student even volunteered to give a speech about the program. She explained that she expected it to be boring, but when she saw the expressions on the children’s faces it changed her mind. The party, and the program were a huge success, and McGee has even heard that some of the girls had their own tea parties over the summer. “For centuries, woman have been having tea parties and strategizing,” explains McGee. “That’s where some of the most powerful decisions were made.”
For McGee, food is energy-energy to do your work, to tell your story, to teach. She says, “I do believe that it is very much a part of who we are.”
Deep Roots Desserts Telephone: (763) 544-9366 E-mail Rose at: email@example.com
Offering: Sweet Potato Pie, Chocolate Sweet Potato Pie and Mango Cobbler-all in either full pies or mini-pies. Rose also makes custom gift baskets.
You can also look for her pies at La Patisserie at 1570 Randolph Avenue in St. Paul, and Café Tatta Bunna at 2100 Plymouth Avenue North, Minneapolis.