It’s my father’s birthday today. I made him a lemon meringue pie. Actually I made the pie last weekend, because we both tend to be busy during the week, so I thought I would have a better chance of luring him over for pie if I did it on the weekend. He suggested chess pie, which I did briefly consider, but I had a pound of lemons that needed to be used.
I like the process of making lemon meringue pie. It is both exacting and gloriously messy, and the end result is generally universally enjoyed, combining tart glorious lemon with airy meringue which melts away as soon as it gets moist. I’ve also enjoyed making variations like lime meringue and tangerine meringue (which, for the record, did not turn out as fabulously as I might have desired). The trick, I have found, is cutting the sugar dramatically, allowing the tart flavor of the lemons to come through without drowning the tongue in sweetness.
As I was making the pie and experimenting with a fancy-pants yuppie pie crust that turned out like cardboard, I was reminded of the great coconut cream pie adventure, which took place many years ago, when I wore stripes with floral prints and sat at the end of the bar in the Coast Hotel drinking Shirley Temples as my father worked.
My father and I have both been long-time fans of coconut cream pie. Every now and then, as a treat, we would go to the Laurel Deli and have a slice of coconut cream pie together, or sometimes chocolate cream pie. This was in the days when the Laurel Deli was on the East side of Main Street, for those of you who remember those heady times. And although my father and I were great baking adventurers, for some reason we never tried making our own.
At any rate, a friend of my father’s went to Hawaii, and she mailed back a coconut. I’m not sure you can still that, but you used to be able to just slap a mailing label on a coconut and send it. On my first trip to Hawaii, I sent coconuts to everyone and their sister because I was so excited by the novelty. This particular coconut was decorated from head to toe with delicate pastel drawings, and the label had a finely painted miniature beach scene on it.
For the first few days, we just looked at the coconut, turning it over now and then and trying to decide what to do with it. Finally, my father (or maybe it was me, my memory is thin on this point) said:
“Let’s make a coconut cream pie.”
For some reason, we took the coconut with us when he went to work, perhaps to ask for advice from the Mayan kitchen staff, whom we assumed were coconut experts. When we arrived, it was still early, and I was fired up with enthusiasm, so we proceeded to the loading dock and started hurling the coconut repeatedly against the ground to get it to crack open. This, of course, did not work, so we tried hammers, and mallets, and any number of things, until the whole kitchen staff had arrived and was lined up at the window laughing while they did prep.
Eventually, a small fissure opened in the coconut, and the coconut juice poured out. We, of course, did not realize that coconut juice and coconut milk are not the same, so we had a moment of panic, until one of the prep cooks took pity on us and said that “the milk is in the meat.”
So we took the coconut home and painstakingly chiseled out the meat, which predictably did not yield milk when squeezed, because we did not realize that there was a process for coconut milking. I was surprised to learn that coconut cream pie is not made with coconut milk (or cream), but rather that the recipe called for vanilla cream pie with coconut flakes added. As I recall, we made the cream filling as directed and just threw the chunks of coconut, complete with streaks of grease from the chisel, in. (The recipe called for toasted shredded coconut.)
We decided to eschew the meringue, either because neither of us felt like making it or because someone’s impatience had clouded our judgments, and we popped the pie in the oven and waited with bated breath for it to come out, discussing the delicious and satisfying flavor of coconut cream pie, and how excellent it was going to be to make coconut cream pie from a coconut someone had sent us. Personally. From Hawaii.
When we took the pie out, the filling had developed a definite list to starboard, with a cracked and pitted surface marked by inclusions of leathery coconut meat which stuck out like nuts in brittle. We began to have doubts about the coconut pie mission, but my father gamely cut two slices, pulled two forks out of the silverware drawer, and settled down at the table.
I’ve had a few things in my life I haven’t enjoyed. Durian, for example. But few things will ever equal this coconut cream pie, which has to be one of the most disgusting things I have ever eaten. The filling was way too rich, with a mouth-clogging creamy texture which wasn’t helped by some sort of faint curdling which had happened during the baking process, causing it to form cheesy chunks. I think this may be because we used straight whipping cream, for reasons I cannot recall. The coconut meat, which was coarsely chiseled instead of grated, turned out leathery in places and wooden in others, and it was utterly tasteless.
My father took a few more bites, as did I, as we hesitantly peeked at each other over our slices.
“Hrm,” my father said.
“Er,” I replied.
And we quietly got up and put our plates on the sideboard, where they rested like unexploded grenades for several hours as we played a game of Monopoly. We really hate wasted food, so there was a quiet underlying tension as we battled for capitalist control of the yellows, with neither of us wanting to say that we should throw the pie away.
“Maybe we should top it with whipped cream,” he said.
“That will be $26,” I replied as he landed on Pacific Avenue. “I think we would still taste the coconut chunks. Maybe we could pick them out. We could serve slices with crab forks.”
“Or maybe we could rinse the filling off,” he said, ignoring the fact that the filling was the most expensive ingredient, “and start again with the coconut chunks.” He peeled $30 off his roll of cash and waited for change.
At the end of the night, I won the game and we tossed the cake, throwing the shreds into the bushes in the back yard. I secretly hoped a coconut tree would grow there.
And I haven’t tried making coconut cream pie since.