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Slice of Tradition : Year After Year, Customers Flock to South-Central for Bakery’s Acclaimed Sweet Potato Pie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every year before Thanksgiving Day, the ovens at the 27th Street Bakery Shop in South-Central Los Angeles are roaring ‘round the clock in a frantic effort to keep up with a flood of orders.

It’s a busy time of the year for all bakeries, but especially so for one specializing for 60 years in a tasty Southern delicacy: fresh-baked sweet potato pies.

On holidays--particularly on the day before Thanksgiving--the small brick building on the corner of 27th Street and Central Avenue becomes a magnet for anybody who grew up in South-Central, or who has heard the stories of the magically creamy texture that the bakery achieves.

Hundreds come from all over the Los Angeles area, some obsessed with arriving late enough in the afternoon before the holiday to get one of the day’s last pies. To accommodate them, the bakery’s staff of family and employees churned out 1,300 sweet potato pies Wednesday.

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One of a handful of African American-owned businesses left on an increasingly Latino-influenced Central Avenue, the 27th Street Bakery is a connection to a vanished era.

“I feel like I’m home,” said Warren Harris, 67, pointing to the old Lincoln Theater, where Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole and Cab Calloway used to play in the ‘40s and ‘50s when Central Avenue was the black cultural hub of a segregated Los Angeles. “I used to go to that theater and come here and get a pie.”

Ed James, 49, drove out from Northridge. He also had a special connection to the store. He arranged its first loan from the mayor’s office to buy $22,000 in additional equipment.

David Browder, 43, who grew up in South-Central, drove back from his home in Fontana to get a pie, as well as a haircut from the same barber he has been visiting since age 12.

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“My mother’s 87, she’s getting a little slow and her pies aren’t as good as they used to be,” he said.

Herb Rothner, 68, of the west San Fernando Valley, got his first taste of the bakery’s sweet potato pie when he was in high school and worked along Central Avenue. “My parents were from Lithuania and they didn’t know anything about sweet potato pies,” he said. “I love the taste, and besides, I don’t like pumpkin pie.”

The bakery was started in the 1930s by a restaurateur who catered to the tastes of a wave of African American immigrants from the South who lived along Central Avenue. Today, his grandchildren run the business, which is the largest wholesaler of sweet potato pies in Southern California.

“Sweet potatoes were slave food, poor man’s food, and African Americans turned it into a fine dessert,” said one of the grandchildren, Gregory Spann, the bakery’s manager.

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To make the pies, the bakery uses traditional ingredients of yams, sugar, eggs, milk and vegetable shortening. The rest is a secret, said Jeanette Bolden, Spann’s sister, who also is active in the family business. She refused to explain how the pies get the sweet creamy texture.

Bolden, a former Olympic track gold medalist and now a women’s track coach at UCLA, pitched in along with other family members to bake the pies Wednesday. Also on the menu were sock-it-to-me cake, pineapple upside-down cake, lemon glaze cake and a variety of other pastries.

In many households the idea of buying sweet potato pie from a bakery runs against the tradition of Thanksgiving, in which cherished recipes for the dessert are passed down for generations.

But Zeola Duff said she didn’t have time to cook this year. She arrived in a taxi hoping to pick up a couple of pies she ordered for Thanksgiving dinner with her grandchildren in Pasadena.

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“At 81, I’ve done enough cooking,” she said.


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