By Margaux Laskey
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: A Pie to Cut Through Summer’s Heat
As a child in the 1950s and ’60s, Bill Smith vacationed with his family in Atlantic Beach, on one of the southern-facing barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina. It was, and still is, a no-frills sort of beach town where no-fuss seafood restaurants served heaping baskets of fried seafood, hush puppies and coleslaw. Menus varied slightly, but no matter which restaurant Mr. Smith and his family went to, lemon pie — creamy and custardy, with a salty cracker crust and meringue topping — was always on the menu. Local folklore demanded it. “We were always told growing up that if you ate dessert after eating seafood, you’d get sick,” Mr. Smith said. “It wasn’t true, of course, but you believed it because that’s what you were told. The one exception was citrus. You could eat citrus desserts, so all of the seafood restaurants along the coast had some variation of the lemon pie.” Years later, in 2011, Mr. Smith — the chef at Crook’s Corner, a restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., known for Southern comfort-food classics like shrimp and grits, fried oysters and banana pudding — was asked to come up with a dessert to serve at a Southern Foodways Alliance dinner. “That pie,” he said, immediately came to mind. “I called around to a bunch of the seafood restaurants,” he said. “Of course, none of them would give me the recipe.”
He came up with a slightly modernized version, based on his memories and recipes from old community cookbooks. To make it, he replaced the traditional meringue topping, which weeps and doesn’t hold up well in a restaurant kitchen, with lightly sweetened whipped cream. While some use Ritz crackers or Captain’s Wafers for the crust, he used saltine crackers. (“That caused a huge fight down here,” he said with a chuckle.) Finally, he added a sprinkling of sea salt on the top, and named it Atlantic Beach pie. It was huge hit at the Southern Foodways dinner, so he added it to the Crook’s Corner menu. Katie Workman, the author of “The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket,” discovered it while eating there, and went on to share the recipe on National Public Radio’s Found Recipes series. And that was that. Soon, Crook’s Corner had a line out the door, and the pie was selling out. Magazines and newspapers wrote features about it. Food bloggers sang its praises. (A quick internet search for the pie yields about 458,000 results.) Every cooking website worth its flaky sea salt added it to its recipes. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams even developed an Atlantic Beach pie flavor.
It’s no wonder why it took off. It’s so easy it feels like cheating, and requires no special equipment. A food processor makes quick work of the cracker-butter-sugar crust, but it comes together just as easily with your hands (ideal for a vacation rental with limited cooking tools). And you don’t have to let it cool before pouring in the filling of condensed milk, lemon or lime juice and egg yolks. You can make the pie in well under an hour, and it holds up for several days in the refrigerator (top it with whipped cream just before serving). Then there’s the taste: The filling is sweet yet sharply tart — reminiscent of lemon meringue pie, but creamier and denser — exactly what you want after eating a basket of fried shrimp or a pile of barbecue. The crust is a salty-crisp counterpoint to the creamy sweetness of the filling. A cloud of whipped cream, with just a touch of sugar added, mellows it all out. If you’re feeling flush, sprinkle it with flaky sea salt as they do at Crook’s Corner and citrus zest as we do: a lazy summer’s day in pie form.