Kathleen Purvis

Atlantic Beach Pie is a dream come true

Saltine crackers, butter, lemon juice and condensed milk.

That’s almost all it takes to create a legend.

But oh, what a legend it has become. Those are the basic ingredients of chef Bill Smith’s Atlantic Beach Pie, born from Smith’s memory of eating at seafood restaurants on the N.C. coast when he was a kid.

The pie is a dense, creamy lemon filling in a salty, buttery, crunchy crust. And yes, for some of us, that’s the pie of our dreams: sweet, salty, crunchy, creamy and lemony.

I got a little faint just typing that, frankly.

The legend of the pie has become almost bigger than the taste, though. It’s taken off over the past two summers. It’s been featured – twice – on NPR. It’s on YouTube, Pinterest and Tumblr.

It’s bouncing around the blog world like a recipe pinball, from AARP.org to Epicurious.com, from Tastespotting to Ghee Is Good.

On Food 52, the uber-elegant, New York-centric website founded by former New York Times writer Amanda Hesser, it was last month’s “Genius Recipes” feature.

Now, I have some experience with Bill Smith, the chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill. We’re friends through the Southern Foodways Alliance, and I have learned to beware when Smith leads me down the high-calorie path.

This is the man who introduced me to the idea of spreading soft butter on frozen Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies. Yes, he is just that evil.

So I’ll admit, I was a little jealous when Smith’s pie started getting the attention of food writers far from North Carolina. It’s like watching the girl next door grow up and attract a line of suitors.

Hey, that’s our pie, world. And Bill is our chef.

Really, though, I should blame Greensboro-based Our State magazine.

Smith was already attracting attention for the pie when Elizabeth Hudson, the editor of Our State, asked him to write about it for the May beach issue. The recipe took off all over again. It’s now gotten 64,000 page views on their website and been shared 11,000 times on Facebook.

“Without a doubt, it’s been the most popular recipe we’ve ever had in Our State,” Hudson admits.

Part of what makes it fun is the story: When Smith was a kid, there was an old wives’ tale that it would kill you if you ate dessert after a seafood meal.

The only exception was a lemon meringue pie with a cracker crust, served at seafood restaurants along the coast.

When the Southern Foodways Alliance had a field trip in Eastern North Carolina a few summers ago, Bill resurrected those pies, coming up with a crust of crushed crackers and butter, and replacing the meringue with whipped cream and a little salt.

Then he made the mistake – according to him – of putting it on the menu at Crook’s Corner, where customers now demand it.

The pie, he wrote in Our State, “will be the death of me.”

I hope not, Bill. But after making it last week, I can only say: Leave us your recipes when you go.