A cookbook is, by definition, a book that contains recipes and instructions on how to prepare food but from there, all bet’s are off an occasionally you come across a rollicking, raw, playful book of food literature like The Mad Feast; An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food by Matthew Gavin Frank (Liveright Publishing). Part Bourdain and part Hunter S. Thompson, Frank has attempted to document the iconic regional dishes of every state in America through gritty stories full of local color, snippets of history, thoughtful pondering on ingredients and the way they come together, the chemistry key to the dish’s success… and all this in the context of a sometimes made-up uncle. He describes the book as, “intended to be a spastic, lyrical anti-cookbook cookbook of the sorts that may also be a fun and digressive revisionist take on U.S. history.”
Well ok, then. Let’s dig in. The book is broken down into regions, starting with the South, and I decided to make the Key Lime Pie not because it was first but because it sounded really good on a grey Seattle day. The dish is inextricably tied to the state because of the sour smallness of the limes that grow there and how, combined with the condensed milk, the filling thickens without needing to bake it. Also the tendency of the pie to not spoil, which may have made it a favourite of the sponge fishermen. “Adding heat is a shunning of both tradition and chemistry,” he writes, “A putting of a windbreaker on top of a goose-down coat, a fur fat on a yak, another sunburn on top of a perfectly good sunburn.”
Though the recipe does call for cooking the pie, the micro rant puts the passion of Floridians for their pie into context. The essay starts with a breakdown of ingredients, “Here, our citrus is dwarf, the rind thinner, the acid mapping our tongues. Here we name our citrus after our island chains, which we’ve named after the tiny metal code-crackers that unlock our doors. Here, our code-crackers come at us like our limes: with teeth.”
“The crust is graham cracker, or the crust is store-bought pastry, or the crust is homemade, or the crust is, as Uncle say, “This stupid fucking part of the earth we have to love on,” even all the way out here, on a crumb of dirt in the middle of the ocean 130 miles from the mainland. He holds his arms out to his sides and spins a bit as he says this. Granted, he’s been drinking all afternoon, but that does little to undo the facts: here, our scourges whirl. They’re often the prettiest things in the room.”
But interspersed are lists of various places uncle has worked, the many uses of sponges, descriptions of bougainvillea and leopard moths, an anecdote about a French botanist who circumnavigated the globe and one about Hurricane Georges. It’s as though, to describe the thing that Key Lime Pie is, Frank has taken all the connections it has to place and bundled them up in a messy, haphazard way. But it works: now have a scrumptious key lime pie, a much bigger picture of its cultural context and 49 more states to read about.
Blue Heaven’s Key Lime Pie
from The Mad Feast by Matthew Gavin Frank
Yield: 1 pie
Graham Cracker Crust (makes enough for about 4 pies):
- 4 cups graham cracker crumbs
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 cans sweetened condensed milk – he suggests Borden’s
- 1 cup key lime juice , fresh – from a jar will also work if you can’t find any
- 8 egg yolks
- 8 egg whites*
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
*be sure the bowl and whisk used to beat the egg whites are very clean, otherwise the egg whites will not form a stiff peak.
Graham Cracker Crust:
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Mix the cracker crumbs, sugar and butter together
- Line a 9″ pie plate with the cracker mix, pressing firmly to line the bottom and sides
- Bake for 8 minutes. Leave the oven at 350.
- Whisk the condensed milk with the lime juice and egg yolks in a stainless steel bowl.
- Pour into the pre-baked graham cracker shell.
- Set aside while making meringue.
- Beat the egg whites to a soft peak – add the cream of tartar and continue to whip to a stiff peak.
- Continue whipping and add the sugar, whipping until the meringue forms stiff peaks.
- Decoratively add meringue on top of the custard and bake for 15-20 minutes.
- Cook until the meringue has a good color.
- Check with a wooden skewer or cake tester to make sure the custard has set.