Slice of Life

Key West today is not my kind of place. For starters, while I love the ocean, I'm not a beach-community kinda guy -- not a guy tuned to that Endless Summer, quasi-Caribbean, Jimmy Buffett-and-a-strawberry-daiquiri vibe. Trust me, the last thing any of you nice people want to see is my pasty white ass slouching around the dockside bars in a pair of Chuck Taylors and a banana hammock, fruity umbrella drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, bad-mouthing the tourists and trying to find the nearest 24-hour diner.

Sure, I read my Hemingway, my McGuane and Hiaasen, and I reveled in their colorful world of near-expats, burnouts, rum-runners, refugees, crusty old charter-boat captains, legendary drunks and fugitive dope pilots -- my kind of people. In 1982, the Keys (all of 'em, from Skeeter's Last Chance Saloon in Florida City south) seceded from the United States, fer chrissakes, declaring, from the steps of a Miami courthouse, their intent to form the Conch Republic; they formalized their separation by having Dennis Wardlow, the mayor (or prime minister, at least for that moment), break a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of some guy dressed in a U.S. Navy uniform and then immediately turn around and surrender his forces to the admiral at Key West Naval Base, demanding one billion dollars in federal aid for "war relief." That's insanity on a grand scale, folks, and you gotta respect it.

Today the place is different. Duval Street has a Hard Rock Cafe. Key West is overrun by the cruise-ship crowd, and there's such an unholy concentration of money in such a small space that the billionaires sneer at the millionaires for bringing down the property values.

But Key West still has one fantastic thing going for it: real Key lime pie, the official dessert of Key West. It's everywhere -- you can't chuck a coconut without bonking someone who's eating it, making it or selling it on a stick out of a cart -- and you can devour it at any hour of the day or night without anyone looking at you funny. Kick back on a deck chair at Mango's and enjoy Key lime pie and a tall glass of Bacardi Anejo on ice for breakfast, and people just might assume you're a local. If you're stopped for speeding at midnight, making a Key-lime-pie run before closing time is a workable excuse.

Key lime pie was invented out of necessity. Because the Keys were so isolated, fresh milk -- and fresh everything else, besides the native Key limes -- was hard to come by. But Gail Borden's invention of sweetened condensed milk in 1859 created the perfect substitute, and it also meant you could have a fast custard without cooking it. The lime juice alone was enough to curdle the condensed milk and egg yolks in nothing flat, and with the addition of a little sugar, powerful enough to make a passable dessert. No one knows who made the first lime custard. No one knows who first put it into a pie shell. And the meringue-whipped-cream-topping debate may never be settled. But meanwhile, one thing's certain: Outside of the Keys, Key lime pie has been fiddled and fucked with more than any other dessert around. Which is ridiculous, because with only four ingredients, you really have to work to make it go wrong. Most of the adulterated versions I've had over the years are too sweet; substitute sugary farmed limes for the scrappy, tart little Keys variety; use heavy cream and cornstarch instead of condensed milk; inject the filling with green food dye that makes it glow like uranium gelée; and generally muck up every step along the way.

Worse, Key lime pie's rich history has been lost along with its flavor. This is essentially siege cuisine, a dish on par with Irish coddle, bread pudding or cioppino, the stuff you make when the real food is gone and all you've got left are the ugly little limes on the tree out in the yard, some canned milk, cracker crumbs, a little sugar and a couple of eggs. It's comfort food -- American comfort food -- of the purest variety, and it deserves better treatment than it gets outside of its home turf.

The kind of treatment, for instance, that it receives at the Cream Puffery (see page 67). While Key lime pie may not be a recipe native to the Big Havana canon of Cuban cookery, when the result is as good as the pie at the Puff, no one's going to quibble over ninety miles.

Where food comes from, part II: The mole-people I employ in the research wing of Bite Me World HQ have been combing history books and interrogating chefs in a noble attempt to determine the origin of the term "New American Cuisine." And finally, I think they've found it, in a July 6, 1983, Boston Globe piece by Nina Simmonds, which reported on what, by all rights, should have been a totally forgettable press event in Newport, Rhode Island, touting the usefulness of the cranberry. The ad agency for Ocean Spray had flown in a lunch cook and a crew from California to provide "snacks" for the press and play second fiddle to Parisian front-man Guy Savoy -- one of the so-called "Young Turks" of French nouvelle cuisine, along with the Troisgros (both of 'em), Bocuse, the not- so-young but brilliant Senderens, etc. -- who would be providing a cranberry-centric dinner later that night.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan