Remembrance of Pies Past
I’m not a foodie, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. But, I do like to eat, and as a writer, I’m quite interested in things like the links between food and memory.
Memories, we all know, aren’t static. They change over time because our brain alters the memory. When you think about a particular situation, it may not be exactly the same as you remembered before. That’s why fish—and some other, ahem, things—sometimes get bigger in memory than in real life. Food memories, though, tend to be truer.
French writer Marcel Proust was fascinated with food and memory. How many of us remember reading about his encounter biting into a small cake called a madeleine. A shudder runs through his whole body. A feeling of all-powerful joy fills him, and he is overwhelmed with sensations from his childhood. That must have been some powerful little cake.
We all have these “madeleine moments.” Experts say it’s because memories associated with smell and the flavor of food tend to be more emotional, more vivid, and more likely to come from early life than do other memories.
One bite of key lime pie, for example, can carry me back to Miami of the 1960s, a magical city of coconut palms and Cuban boys, Jackie Gleason and jalousie windows, and a grandmother who insisted on referring to the city as “Miamah.”
The irony here is that my grandmother was not a good cook. She was better mixing gin and tonics in time for the evening news. Looking back, it’s what I might expect from a woman who aspired to play the piano on Vaudeville and then ended up working in radio with my grandfather when their New York theatre dreams quit paying the rent during the Great Depression.
Nevertheless, she always served her grandsons a homemade key lime pie, an exotic delicacy to mountain boys more accustomed to warm apple pies and vanilla ice cream.
While in Key West this winter, I decided to explore my key lime pie memories, starting with its history. Many aficionados say a Bahamian cook named “Aunt Sally” concocted the first pie at the end of the 19th Century. “Aunt Sally” worked for a man named William Curry, one of Florida’s first millionaires. True or not, it was a unique dessert inspired by unique conditions. Key West at that time had plenty of limes, few cows, and no refrigeration. What residents did have were cans of sweet condensed milk and plenty of eggs. Through chemical reactions, this was a pie that could cook itself.
I was surprised it’s that easy to make. First you buy a pre-made graham cracker crust. Whisk together two cans (14 ounces) of condensed milk, one cup of lime juice, and two eggs. Pour it into the crust, bake for fifteen minutes, and then chill. No wonder my grandmother was able to master this dessert.
There is, however, one contentious issue: the topping. Meringue is said to be the classic garnish for an authentic key lime pie. Most restaurants in Key West today seem to opt for whipped cream or something fancier like coconut cream or, heaven forbid, marshmallow cream.
As I continued my pie exploration, I learned that key limes aren’t even grown in the Florida Keys any more. They’re raised in Mexico and Central America. Moreover, key limes are added to everything from pretzels and peanuts to jelly beans and jolly whompers. You can purchase key lime pie on a stick and key lime soap on a rope. Want some key lime shampoo or key lime salsa? Pick up a bottle at one of several key lime pie outlets all over the town. Yes, outlets. They even sell key lime wine. After several days, I’d seen enough. What had once been an authentic Florida experience was now nothing more than phony marketing for the masses.
I gave it no further thought until my last day on the island. I was at the airport when I happened upon a vendor selling those frozen key lime pies on a stick. What the hell. I plunked down $4.95 and took a big bite. As the chocolate coating crumbled onto my white shirt, a memory began to form. The taste and texture was that of a Good Humor bar, which along with cheesy mashed potatoes mounded upon a slice of fried bologna, was part of Friday lunches at Hardin Park Elementary School in Boone, North Carolina. No greens. No fruit. No wonder I wore Husky jeans back in those days.
I quickly tossed the offensive key lime pie on a stick into a trash can and boarded my flight, a little embarrassed yet ever more intrigued by the power of taste and recollection. A little later, I couldn’t help but wonder what memories the can of Mr. and Mrs. T Bloody Mary mix I was eyeing on the beverage cart might conjure up?
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