Why Southerners Love Atlantic Beach Pie
Save room for dessert.
If you’re lucky enough to have wandered into Bill Smith’s Chapel Hill restaurant Crook’s Corner, hopefully you saved room for dessert. Specifically, a slice of the restaurant’s famous Atlantic Beach Lemon Pie, a pie so good that NPR claims it may make you blaspheme. The pie is bit like if a key lime pie and a lemon meringue pie had a child. It’s sweet and tart and a little bit salty and with a storied past that makes it even more appealing.
According to Smith, who documented the pie’s origin story for Our State, when he was a child in New Bern, North Carolina (a.k.a. the birthplace of Pepsi Cola), he was told that if you ate dessert after a seafood dinner, it might be the last thing you ever ate. The way Smith tells it, while eating dessert after a fish fry or clam bake was not recommended, exceptions were made for lemon pie. There was something about lemon and fish being a natural culinary pairing that made it okay, which is how seafood restaurants on the Carolina coast ended up having variations on a tart pie on their menu, called Atlantic Beach Lemon Pie or just “lemon pie”. Traditionally, the pie was lemon or maybe lime flavored, topped with meringue, and with a crust made from Ritz or Saltine crackers that gives the dessert a complex sweet-tart-salty taste.
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Those pies stuck in Smith’s memory and when he was asked by the Southern Foodways Alliance to teach a class on eastern North Carolina food traditions, his thoughts turned to lemon pie. After doing some research—naturally church cookbooks were involved— the James Beard Award nominated chef developed his own version of it. His twist involves lemon or lime juice, or a mix of both, condensed milk, and swapped the meringue for whipped cream sprinkled with coarse sea salt. He put his Atlantic Beach Lemon Pie on the menu at his Chapel Hill, N.C., restaurant Crook's Corner and it was an immediate hit, selling out day after day.
Since it’s only seven ingredients or so (or eight if you follow Quartz’s advice), most of which any chef worth their sweet tooth probably has in the kitchen right now, it’s easy enough to make it at home. Smith shared his recipe here, while The New York Times offered its own version, adding citrus zest to the finished product. Either way, in a little over 30 minutes you could be biting into a slice of salty-sweet-tart summertime perfection.
And if you’re worried that there might be something to that old wives’ tale about dessert after a seafood feast, well, Smith’s pie might just be worth the risk.