A while back, I was spending a couple of days in the Great Corporate Salt Mine’s headquarters in Sweat City – that’d be Houston to all y’all non-Texans. It was right after the turn of the year, and it was uncharacteristically cold, practically frigid. There had even been a freeze warning posted for points north of town. Of course, it’s against my religion to ever wear an overcoat when traveling to Sweat City, whether conditions justify it or not. An overcoat in this normally steamy clime is normally (as the locals say) as “useless as tits on a boar hog,” and the odds in any given two-day span are low that I’ll freeze to death between my rental car and the office. So, while I did not quite freeze to death, there were times when it seemed like my blood would turn into soft-serve. Yeef.
Fortunately, the Salt Mine has a pleasant on-premises cafeteria. Heated, too, as befits an indoor space. And so I stayed in the office and took my lunch with Fearless Leader.
As we hunkered down over our plates, the topic of pie came up somehow. Seems Fearless Leader Junior is a big Key Lime pie fan. I haven’t ever met this kid and already I like him.
He gets style points, too. According to his Daddy, when enjoying his pie, Fearless Leader Junior does what many of us do as we work our way around the plate: He saves the best part for last. He will attack the whipped topping first, followed by the crust, leaving the citrus-scented filling for last.
This, indeed, is my pie-eating – nay, my meal-eating strategy. Problem is, She Who Must Be Obeyed is on to me. If I clean one item off the plate first, her immediate response is, “What? You didn’t like it?” And she’s right, more often than not. [Although, if I really don’t like it, I won’t eat it. Life’s too short to drink bad wine or eat crappy food. And living under the same roof as SWMBO, I don’t ever have to drink bad wine or eat crappy food.]
Back to the Key Lime pie. Years ago, before the foodie explosion, it was a lot more difficult to get hold of a real Key Lime pie. Key limes were only available in South Florida, and they were none too common as they were (and are) notoriously difficult to cultivate. I used to call on a customer in South Florida who grew ’em on a tree in his front yard, and every time I came to town, he would present me with a sackful of the ping-pong ball-sized fruit. I would then take them home and use them to make a serious, honest-to-Gawd Key Lime pie. Not those flabby, fake pies that have that stupid green food coloring: I’m talking about the Real Thing. Graham cracker crust. Deep yellow filling, tart with citrus and creamy with sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks. Meringue topping. Any Key Lime pie that does not have these three components is not the Real Thing. Delicious, perhaps – but not the Real Thing.
There’s a historical reason for this, for which you have to imagine yourself in Florida back in the days before cheap and easily available refrigeration and air conditioning. It’s damned hot in your kitchen, for perhaps 350 days out of the year. You will not have an easy time making a nice, flaky dough-based pie crust, since most forms of shortening will liquefy, leaving you with a concrete-like mass – so you will make a graham cracker crust. You will want to use sweetened condensed milk in the filling, since it requires no refrigeration. And you will want to make a meringue topping: it uses the surplus egg whites you put aside when you used the yolks to make the filling, and it doesn’t need to be refrigerated like whipped cream. It’s the perfect hot-weather pie.
This is not to say that modern variations aren’t tasty. Pappasito’s, a Houston institution, often sells a frozen Key Lime pie that kicks major ass, even if it is decorated with a squirt of whipped cream and a sliver of Persian (not Key) lime. At least the filling isn’t green.
I could go on and on about pie. There are the pies I wish I liked, but don’t: pumpkin and mince. (Who the hell really likes mince pie, anyway? Candied fruit and beef suet? Pfaugh!) There are bizarro pies, such as the truly horrendous – yet strangely toothsome – Tang Pie. And then there are the pies I love. The serious chocolate cream pie from Greenwood’s on Green Street in Roswell. Blackberry pie. Blueberry. Sour cherry. Peach. Lemon meringue. And our friend Laura Belle’s apple pie, available with crumb or regular ol’ crust. Her blueberry pie is nothing to sneeze at, either.
Blueberry! I have had blueberry pies in the Canadian maritimes that were good enough to make strong men weep. The local wild blueberries – tiny, intensely flavored fellows quite unlike the puffy, bland berries we get here in the South – are the secret.
Did I mention coconut custard? Not coconut cream – coconut custard. It’s a critical distinction. The first is okay, I guess – but the second brings back enraptured memories of childhood excess.
Back in my snot-nose days, when you could get fresh milk delivered to your doorstep, we had the ultimate Coconut Custard Connection – the Dugan Man.
Once or twice a week, the Dugan Man came to our back door with his huge basket of baked goodies. Corn muffins – the flat kind that slip neatly into the toaster. Donuts. Coffee cakes. And, most insidious of all, the Coconut Custard Pie.
Oh, how many of those blasted blessèd things did we devour in our youth? How many pounds of ass-fat do I still carry, thanks to the Dugan Man?
That son of a bitch.