North Carolina Chef Bill Smith Shares His Story About "That Pie"

Smith had no idea that a dessert from his childhood would become an overnight sensation.

Atlantic Beach Pie
Photo: Greg DuPree; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis

Growing up in eastern North Carolina in the 1950s, we were taught that if you ate dessert after a seafood dinner, you would die (just like swimming after lunch). No explanation—in those days, you believed what your elders told you. For some reason, the one exception to this rule was lemon pie, so all of the restaurants in the beach towns along our coast had that on the menu. Their crusts were often made of cracker crumbs (saltines, Ritz, or Captain's Wafers), but they were all good—and you never found this dessert anywhere else. I loved this pie but then forgot about it for 40 years. By then, I was the chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill.

In June of 2012, the Southern Foodways Alliance invited its membership to a field trip in my hometown of New Bern. Wood-cooked whole-hog barbecue is the most famous food to come from those parts, but they wanted to showcase all kinds of local specialties. I worked with Cindy and Sam McGann from the wonderful Blue Point restaurant in Duck, North Carolina, to put on a coastal supper in the gazebo at Union Point Park on the banks of the Neuse River. Corned-ham biscuits, fish muddle, hard-crab stew, and lemon pie were on the menu. I cobbled together a recipe for the pie using mostly old church and community cookbooks. The evening was a success and ended with my sisters, nieces, and their friends dancing around me dressed in crab costumes. These are grown women. A video of this pops up, unbidden, on Facebook every six months or so.

The pie was as good as I remembered—and, best of all, easy—so I put it on the menu at Crook's. I had to call it something, so sort of offhandedly, I chose the name of one of our closest beach towns, Atlantic Beach. Enter food writer and cookbook author Katie Workman. She came in for dinner right afterward and liked it so much that she arranged for us to record a piece for NPR's All Things Considered called "A North Carolina Pie that Elicits an 'Oh My God' Response."

As luck would have it, the night the segment aired, I was back in Duck with Sam and Cindy, photographing a magazine piece about the food of coastal North Carolina. My phone started ringing. At the restaurant, there was a line of people at the door, and we were about to run out of pie. This was a prediction of my future. Soon enough, I was hearing things like this: "The event is in a field about 10 miles outside town. There really isn't any refrigeration to speak of. We'll need about 80 slices," and "There are some ovens in that tent over there. We're expecting about 700 people." And this was before the rest of the press even caught on.

Of course, I'm sort of flattered. But it never quite dies down, and there are factions. The summer before the pandemic, I was challenged to a baking contest by cooks out on Harkers Island, North Carolina, to benefit the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center. You see, they use Ritz crackers and meringue. I use saltines and whipped cream. Being ladies and gentlemen, we agreed that the result was a tie.

I don't remember when I started calling it "that stupid pie," but today it awaits me at every turn. It's really good, and anyone can make it—so they do. Bringing it to the table guarantees plenty of praise and compliments. I just stand back and watch.

North Carolina native Bill Smith is a chef, writer, and community activist.

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