Charlotte’s key lime pie

Shortly after I became engaged, my husband’s mother invited the family to meet me over Sunday dinner. She put an extra leaf in the old gray kitchen table and moved in chairs from the dining room. We may have eaten in the kitchen, but “she really put on the dog,” my fiancé exclaimed several times afterwards.
I didn’t exactly know what he meant – I thought that was the way everyone ate every time they had a family meal together. In retrospect, having hosted and attended extended family gatherings a few times, I understand better.
For one thing, that meal was the only time I saw her prepare congealed salad with pear halves on lettuce. It was also the only time that she made an exotic dish she had read and heard about, but had never actually tried before: Key Lime Pie.
She bought the limes, squeezed out the juice and carefully followed the recipe. The golden meringue topped pie waiting on the counter just begged to be eaten. I think she also made another, more conventional fruit pie, but I don’t remember what it was. The Key Lime Pie held center stage.
That meal I met the talking Hershberger brothers and their wives. The men joked and laughed, trying to get acquainted with that shy young thing engaged to their brother. I did not quite know what to do with them. I come from a family of strong, silent men, who scarfed down their food and promptly went to watch the ball game.
We dutifully ate our congealed salad with a half pear each, mopped up the gravy and mashed potatoes and eyed the pies. My fiancé evidently talked a bit less than the rest. He was the first to have his choice of the two pies. He chose Key Lime Pie, dished up a piece, returned to the table and took a bite. His smile of pleasure twisted into distaste, “this tastes absolutely awful,” he said.
We all looked up startled. We could not believe he would say that. He ate another piece.
“It tastes fine until you bite into the most bitter piece of something,” he said.
Mrs. H. immediately knew what it was. Yes, she had followed the recipe, but she simply had been unable to resist adding one tiny little item to the recipe. All the years she had made lemon meringue pies, she explained, the recipes had called for a bit of zest … a finely grated pinch of the rind of the lemon. She thought a little zest would also enhance the lime pie. In theory it was a good idea. In actuality, it was awful.
We didn’t believe it could be that awful.
One by one, the rest of us went over to the counter to choose a pie.
One by one we each took a piece of Key Lime Pie.
One by one we each took a bite, delighted in its taste – and one by one our faces soured as our taste buds hit that bitter zest.
We each ate our entire piece of pie, grimacing and enjoying it alternately. It really was heavenly until the zest zapped us into an alternate universe. We laughed and talked about how wonderfully, awful it was with every single bite.
The meal ended with the pie completely gone and our dessert plates scraped clean of the worst pie ever. I had met the family and learned the rules: you can laugh and talk about how awful the food is, but clean your plate.
A good rule, because Mrs. H. didn’t put on the dog like that ever again.
(Joan Hershberger is a reporter at the News-Times.)