You may or may not be as amused as we are at some of the conversations we have here at our wholesale outlet, either at the counter of on the telephone.
Steve: Are you eating those right away (4-inch tarts) or would you like them wrapped to go?
As some of you know, we begin making deliveries to Whole Food Market this week. We’re starting with one store only, with the promise (suggestion) that if all goes well and we play nice -they’re asking us to “partner”, meaning do in-store tastings- we have a good chance of expanding into the greater Tri-state area (NY, NJ, CT.) The market trends dictated us by Whole Foods aren’t bad policy, in fact we’ve thought about going in this direction for a while. In particular, our crumb formula has seen a few changes, using pure sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup and the removal of trans-fats. We’re also switching to cage-free egg yolks; happy chickens make happy eggs?
The eggs and HFCS are compliments of Whole Foods, the removal of trans-fats compliments of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while implementing his healthy food agenda during his last term. Would we have made these changes without them being dictated by market or law? I’d like to think so, but we didn’t actually make the changes until they were either forced upon us (by law) or dictated (by market) to do so. Are we unhappy that these changes have occurred? Not at all, they make for a better product for the consumer, so in the end, these changes are welcomed.
Personally, I’m pleased with these changes, knowing that others in the industry are looking for ways to cut corners and reduce their costs, usually at the expense of the consumer. I was recently in Islamorada, a trip that was slightly business and mostly pleasure. I had the opportunity to see a few offerings of key lime pie while I was there, and I thought, shame on whoever was behind pumping out that swill. It’s almost embarrassing, the official State Pie of Florida, an item that is synonymous with South Florida and The Keys, looking haggard, spent and unwell. We take pride in what we do at our little bakery, I can’t imagine whoever was responsible for what I saw in a major supermarket chain and a convenience store can say the same. There still remains the locals who make them the old fashioned way, and I take nothing away from them, if anything they’re the saving grace for this beloved dessert.
So at the end of the day, thanks to politics and market trends, we are proud to bring you an even better product that we were yesterday. There’s talk in the wind of taking a trip to Mexico, and maybe seeding and growing our own key limes.
When asked about my observations to the changes that have occurred in Red Hook, I always relay one of my favorite anecdotes, as follows…
You used to be able to drive down Van Brunt street and see a friend in the oncoming lane, both of you stop and chat for a moment or two, and neither worry about someone behind you blasting the horn. Chances were, the one behind you was waiting for you to finish your conversation so they could take their place on the street and strike up a conversation of their own.
That was a long time ago, and the changes keep on coming, even after (and seemingly more so) since our bout with Hurricane Sandy. Now there’s a push, an overt call for outsiders to “Discover Red Hook.” One one hand, the businesses could use the visitors. On the other hand, most of us were fine before the storm and before being “discovered.” We drew people into the area because of what we did or what we offered, our uniqueness or the niche we filled.
The writing is already on the wall, and as in the case of the recent Banksy piece; identified, incased and awaiting a big payoff even if down the road. On a trip made to Williamsburg over the weekend for a delivery -having had a workshop down there years ago on Wythe between South 3rd and 4th- I decided to take a drive around. Like it or not, I had a bad feeling that I was looking at the future of Red Hook.
My conflict comes from the fact that most of the people I know who live in Red Hook (save the old timers, pioneers and those who had the money to buy) are renting, both living spaces and business locations. These are the folk who we see on a daily basis and interact with on Van Brunt street, at Carmen’s or Heeba, A&R or Bait and Tackle. I have this awful vision of an influx of snooty restaurants and even snootier residents. In Willyburg, I saw a debacle of a highrise cluster where the center of commerce was self-contained; a pharmacy, a bank, a variety of take-out food, a dry cleaner (do we even have, or need a dry cleaner in Red Hook?) affording the residents the luxury all life’s necessities without the need to be part of the community. Well, that last statement isn’t totally true, the newly built clusters become the community. In as much, the very fiber of the existing community is lost.
From a business point of view, I feel rather secure, and the changes bode well for the future. But I worry about the direction of where Red Hook is going. I’m not sure the trade-off is worth it, as I’m not here for the “hit” only to later run. I worry about the renters here, the folk on the fringe, the unsecured. It’s an age old story in NYC, we’ve seen it happen all over the place. Now, as the call to “Discover Red Hook” comes to fruition, the very thing that brought many of us to this little corner in the first place is slowly disappearing, whether you asked for it or not.
As I sit here trying to reflect on the events that occurred (not quite) one year ago, I find it difficult to recall the angst and heartbreak (was there really any heartbreak?) from Hurricane Sandy’s arrival. Maybe being a native South Floridian and having experienced numerous hurricanes growing up, I wasn’t so much devastated by the events as much as I was in awe of an occurrence that we take for granted; the raw unleashing of power.
As a business who suffered loss of product, productivity and income, yes it was difficult, and we’re still crawling our way back in spite of the politicians and appointees who blew smoke up our collective asses, but did we really didn’t expect anything, did we? And there was a perspective that needed to be kept in place back then. We had a home to go to at the end of the day, and all of our people were safe and sound. I cannot help but think of the less fortunate people in the Rockaways, Statin Island and the Jersey Shore who lost their homes or loved ones. In a greater perspective observation, we on this part of the globe enjoy the relative security of homes and infrastructure that are built to certain standards, where response teams and resources are by far superior to third world nations where death tolls are often counted in the thousands.
I find it difficult to linger on the negative aspects of Sandy, when so much positive came from her visit. The Red Hook Initiative shining like a light on the hilltop in the darkest hour. The droves of volunteers who abated the disaster-porn photographers and lookie-loo throngs who wanted a glimpse of “our pain.” Our neighbors playing generator roulette or going on gas-runs for the collective, the response to individual fundraising campaigns and the help that came from ReStore Red Hook. Ultimately for us as a business, Sandy would bring us an opportunity, although covered with a thick film of grime and dusting of sand (how appropriate.) Saint Sandy, for us, gave much more than she took.
When I mentioned to Derek (my 7-year old son) that we were celebrating the one year anniversary of Sandy, he seemed at odds with why we would celebrate. “It was nothing but a terrible mess” was what he suggested, but I needed to remind him that people celebrate anniversaries for a variety of reasons. Our celebration is that we survived, we came together, we prevailed in spite of the challenges. When I drive through our Red Hook neighborhood, I see where we’ve come more than where we were. I’m sure the press will be rehashing the disaster-porn, we’ll be celebrating. But I dare not tempt the gods by celebrating too much, besides, we’ve still got work to do.
You may or may not be as amused as we are at some of the conversations we have here at our wholesale outlet, either at the counter of on the telephone.
Customer; Are you Steve?
Steve; Yes I am.
This post is being loaded in two different places at the same time, and with minimal editing. As some of you might know, in addition to the key lime pie business, I am also involved in a project called Manos de Mexicanos. You might be wondering what the connection is between key lime pies and Mexican folk art. It might be a stretch (connecting the two) but in terms of authenticity, I can see it clearly.
Yesterday, Victoria and I took a drive out to a town named Tiotitlan de Valle, about 30-minutes out of Oaxaca de Valle where we’re now residing. We went there to visit one of the artisans we were trying to promote, a gentleman named Fidel Cruz and his wife Maria Louisa. The town itself is where the majority of Zapotec weavers reside, their workshops and showrooms lined up and down the main street and fill the landscape in all directions off to the sides . With very little exception, every shop has a sign outside their place telling people that they give demonstrations on the extraction of natural dyes from indigenous elements, and they do. You’ll even see bundles of raw wool and a spinning wheel, and you might even see a demonstration on this process as well. Very entertaining and convincing presentations, the impression given that the rugs made there are made using these techniques. Showmanship aside, the vast majority of these shops are using pre-spun wool dyed with synthetic dyes. There is no commitment to much other than optimizing efficiency of production and maximizing profits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but to suggest, even insist that the products coming from their shops are made in the traditional manner is nothing less than deceptive and truly lacks any degree of authenticity.
But when it comes to those who actually uses these dyes, not just gives the show, but who is committed to maintaining the tradition, Fidel and Maria Louisa are unwavering. The fact of the matter is, it was Fidel who was at the forefront of the resurgence in utilizing these materials, and with much pride, the Cruz family stands firm in their decision. There is a price to pay for this, as the tour busses bypass Casa Cruz and make way to more fertile (read; profitable) grounds. The other shops give the tour operator 30% or more kickback for any sales, and the shop operator can afford to. Unfazed by this, Fidel and Maria Louisa stand their ground, because for them, there really isn’t any choice. Maybe this explains why Maria Louisa and Fidel are invited to give presentations at such places like San Francisco’s Explolratorium while the other shop keepers stay at home tending to the tour busses.
So where is the connection with key lime pies? Well, there’s a little shop in Key West, actually a very busy shop with tour busses passing by touting the shop as a Key West landmark. The proprietor of this shop gives a demonstration (at least on YouTube) showing how to make a key lime pie. Of course, you can see him squeezing key limes, and making a crust by hand, using ingredients one would use when making a traditional, authentic key lime pie. As with the bulk of weavers in Tiotitlan de Valle, when it comes time to actually making the product on a production basis, the show is the show and the pies get a completely different treatment. Bottled juice, pre-made crust, bottom-line mentality in order to maximize profit while leaving all the authenticity to viewers of YouTube. In both cases (key lime pies and hand woven rugs) there is a deliberate deception, a trickery used to fool the consumer into believing that what goes on in the show is what goes into the final product.
I feel a kinship with Fidel and Maria Louisa in this regard, although the key lime pies are nothing in comparison to the amount of skill and hard work that goes into producing one of their tapetes. There are times when I feel a righteous indignation and I wonder whether the Cruz family feels some of the same. But the thing we have in common is the commitment, the unbending sense of resolution to maintaining what is authentic. There simply is no compromise.
After visiting with the Cruz family yesterday, I know we both share a sense of pride in what we’re doing. We both know that at any given moment, anyone can stroll into our shops and see us in the process of doing what we do. There’s nothing we have to hide, there is no deception or trickery, no smoke and mirrors. I can live with that.
I thought of the subject heading of this entry with a very clear idea of what I want to convey here, although the manner of that conveyance as I sit here is less clear. A few words so come to mind; loyalty, drive, focus, determination and integrity to mention but a few. Without these attributes, what happens down at the pier would… well might not be happening at all.
But these attributes don’t apply to me, or some ethos at has been handed down from on-high, these ate the qualities that are present in those who are working for me. Whether their employment was a matter of thoughtful consideration, default or dumb luck doesn’t matter, the bottom line is that I have been blessed with an assemblage of exceptional people, they are all committed to doing what they do and doing it in an exceptional manner.
I’m not sure how it happened, but I sure do acknowledge it, and I suppose this is one small I can let them know. My family has been on the road going on seven months now, traversing the continent from coast to coast, visiting old friends and making new ones. Without the commitment of those back in Brooklyn, this would not have been possible. A blessing indeed.
So in some very strong way, there is an overlapping of these elements that you, our customers are benefiting from. There is the knowledge that, in my absence things are running “business as usual”. I guess that’s one reason it took me over 10-years before I took time away from the business. I have the total confidence in the day-to-day operations on the pier that anyone walking through the doors, or any entity calling for a new commercial account (not to mention existing accounts) are going to be taken care of.
So a shout-out to y’all back on the pier. From Victoria, Derek and myself, a heartfelt thanks. Everything that exists today on the pier is attributable to you, and your commitment to your tasks. I want you to know how much I vale that. Cheers, well see you soon.
Yahoo Travel, thank you very much for including us in your list of America’s 10-Most Unforgettable Pies! That does include all 50-states and the Conch Republic (Florida Keys), which makes Yahoo’s recognition even sweeter, vindication for the self-admitted key lime pie snob (me). OK, I’ll give it up to the mom & pop shops and restaurants who are making their own pies as long as they’re using fresh key limes, it’s the commercial boys I take umbrage with.
Thinking about the article, it’s pretty cool considering the writer selected just 10 pies to highlight. I would have been honored if the article was just focused on bakeries in NYC, or focused on key lime pies alone. Well, not really on the last account, like I said, I’m a key lime pie snob. There must be hundreds if not thousands of contenders, at one local bakery just a stroll down the block, I’m sure Baked has what they believe is a real contender, never mind the countless bakeries everywhere, every-town, every-state. Like the writer stated in the opening of the article, writing a piece like this is “like arm wrestling a bear: It’s a losing proposition”. I’m not going to argue the results.
In terms of key lime pies specifically, my snobbery and my hard-nosed position is best left for another post, where I can rant on and tease myself with the prospect of opening a shop in Key West. For now, I thank the writer for the recognition. I thank all those who have passed our doors and supported our business as well as the restaurants who have not embraced the bottom-line mentality but have chosen to serve their customers an unforgettable dessert, and a special thanks those back in Brooklyn who are keeping things rolling while I make my effort to keep things rolling here in Texas and beyond. Cheers!
JUICING PART THREE
I got back from lunch rarin’ to go. Elijah’s brownies had given me the sugar rush I needed to get me started on a more successful afternoon. I got started right away on a fresh crate of limes. Not only did I feel energized, but I felt strangely focused, intensely focused, a focus I’d never experienced before. I could see the limes coming through the juicer with crystal clarity, I could catch limes that had snuck through and put them back into the feeder tube without missing a beat. I could see out of the corner of my eye when the cup was full, and could replace it with one hand while scooping out rinds with the other. I was in a zone. So this must be what it feels like to find your calling, I thought.
As I was blazing away, I kept noticing that there seemed to be one particular lime that kept sneaking through the juicing mechanism and landing unjuiced in the tray. Don’t ask me how I could differentiate that lime from all the others, but trust me, I know it was the same lime. I could distinguish each lime from the other at that point, each individual like a snowflake, like a fingerprint, like each cell in your body, man, like if you think about it, like what if we were all just cells in some giant’s body or under his fingernail or something. Dude, ya know what I’m sayin’. I mean, it blows your mind.
That’s how I was thinking at the time. It was the strangest feeling I’d ever had. Can’t explain it. Anyway, after about the tenth time of that lime sneaking through, I said out loud, “Come on, dude, you gotta get juiced!”
The lime said, “I don’t want to get juiced.”
Now, you would think having a key lime talk to you would really blow your mind, but it felt strangely normal.
“What do you mean, you don’t want to get juiced?” I asked it. “That’s your job, man. That’s your role in life.”
“I don’t want to get juiced, Pie Runner,” it said.
“How’d you know my name?” I asked it.
“I just know. Don’t juice me.”
“I have to, dude.”
“No, don’t. Just let me sit here.”
“I’ll be your friend,” it said.
“Really?” I said. I was moved. “I could use a friend.”
I gathered it up and put it on top of the Zumex. “Ok, Lime, you can sit here and watch. When you’re done I’ll take you home with me.”
“I have to watch you juice all my friends?” it asked.
“That’s the deal, little buddy.”
“That s inhumane,” it said.
“Sorry, it’s my job.”
“But they’re all my friends.”
“Listen, you have a choice. Either you sit there and be my new friend or I’ll put you back in the juicer with your old friends. Your choice.”
The lime paused. “Fuck it. Go to town.”
I got back into rhythm. I was flying through crate after crate, pausing only to empty the juiced rinds in the garbage and to give a playful chuck under what I thought was my new friend’s chin.
“I’m going to give you a name,” I said to it.
“I already have a name,” it said.
“It’ll be a great name, unless you’re as sensitive as my last friend. Would you be offended if I called you ‘Limey’?”
“Dude, I’m a lime. How would that be offensive?”
“See, that’s what I thought! I had another friend once who got his panties all in a twist when I tried to name him that.”
“Was he British?”
“Limey G.,” I said. “That’s your new name.”
“I already have a name,” it said.
I was very happy. I was juicing away for hours. I couldn’t stop.
“Hey,” said Limey G. “When’s the last time you changed your gloves?”
You have to wear latex gloves when you juice or the lime juice can burn your fingers. I looked down. They were in tatters.
“Dude, look at your fingers,” said Limey G. “They looked cooked.”
“You ever hear of ceviche, dude? That’s when they marinate raw seafood in lime juice, and the juice cooks the meat. Your fingers look like ceviche.”
I looked closely. He was right. My fingers looked very red and swollen. And kind of delicious. I mean, if I didn’t know better, my thumb looked like a savory shrimp, my fingers like fresh chunks of conch. And I was feeling so hungry. I put my fingers up to my mouth, just to give a small lick. I was mesmerized.
“Run, Dave, run!” It was Limey G, screaming from the top of the Zumex. I had stopped paying attention to the machine right after loading a couple of handfuls of limes. The limes were bouncing off the tray and rolling away on the floor.
“Run, Dave,” yelled Limey G again. “Run Larry! Run Thelma! All of you, my key lime friends, run to freedom! Save yourselves!”
I knew I should probably chase them down, but I was suddenly ravished. I had to eat something. Just a taste of something fresh and seafood-y and delicious…
The next thing I remember I was lying on the floor. Sam had apparently come into the kitchen and tackled me.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” she screamed.
“Mmm, ceviche…” I said.
Actually, that’s what it looks like now. It was a lot bloodier then. But don’t worry, my tens of readers. My prosthetic knuckle/fingertip combo should be arriving from Ebay very soon, and I’ll be back to work in no time. Until then, see you on the bedside! (That’s the side of the bed in the hospital where you come visit me. I mean, if you want. You’ll have to ask Sam which hospital I’m in because no one will tell me. It’s quite a nice room, though. Very clean and white and rubbery. And they’ll be bringing me my dinner soon. Mmmm, hope it’s seafood…)
JUICING PART TWO
So I was all set up to start juicing. I had the cartons of key limes to my left, the empty containers to my right. All I had to do was load the limes into the feeder and watch the cup I had put under the spout to make sure it didn’t get too full and overflow. Plus I had to keep an eye on any errant limes that slipped through into the tray and refeed those into the machine. And make sure that the tray didn’t get clogged with squeezed rinds that didn’t fall into the garbage, but landed in the tray instead. Oh, and make sure the garbage can underneath didn’t get too full of rinds. That’s all.
That’s a lot! I thought.
I got going at a pretty good pace, I thought. I was loading and scooping rinds and catching limes that snuck through the first time. I was filling the cups to near perfection every time, about 5/8” from the top. Snapping lids on them and putting in fresh cups. I was feeling good.
Then L. came in.
“Pie Runner, you are too slow. We have many limes to squeeze. KLS says they must all be done today! Arriba, andale!”
Now, I don’t know if these Notes have made it clear, but I’m a fairly nervous guy, and definitely tend to fold like a Dimestore Johnny at a $50 table. So I was feeling the pressure, but also not going to let it get to me. So I started loading faster and faster, emptying the escaped rinds faster and faster, checking the garbage, emptying the garbage, replacing empty cup with full cup, loading, checking, putting lids on full cups, refeeding, panicking, loading, checking, checking again, replacing, rechecking, rechecking, rechecking, I couldn’t keep up! And then I heard voices. It was L. coming back! And she was with Sam and KLS! How was I going to explain all the limes that were still unjuiced? And the rinds that were clogging up the juice tray? I had to think quick. So I did what I think only Lucille Ball before me ever thought to do. I started shovelling the rinds into my pockets, down my pants, into my shoes. I threw as many limes as I could fit in my mouth, into my shirt. It was working! How would they possibly notice?
“Pie Runner!” I heard. It was Sam. She was dressed in a Lebron James Miami Heat jersey. L. stood behind her chuckling her evil chuckle.
“MMphhh?” I replied. It was very difficult to talk with all those limes in my mouth.
“What are you doing?!” she demanded.
“Wmmph, I mmphh nrph strmmph–“ I tried to smile, but it was a very obviously too green of a smile.
KLS leaned and whispered in Sam’s ear.
“KLS says it’s not rocket science. It’s not a conveyor belt. You control the speed of things. If you can’t deal with that many limes at once, don’t put so many in at a time.”
I spit the limes into my apron.
“But L. said—“
KLS leaned and whispered in Sam’s ear.
“KLS says just go to lunch.”
I left for my milk crate, ashamed. As I walked away I could hear L.
I opened my lunch bag. I wasn’t that hungry, because I think I had inadvertently swallowed a few limes. I put my pickle pimento loaf and Velveeta sandwich aside, as well as the bag of Cheetos I had chosen from my Snack Pak that morning. On the bottom, though, was a treat I had totally forgotten I’d packed. There’s a nice man named Elijah in the neighborhood who likes to bake for people, and last night he had given me some of what he calls “My Very Special Brownies.” That sounded exactly like something that would hit the spot, give me a little sugar energy boost to get through the afternoon’s juicing. So I had two for lunch then got up ready to go back to work. And what an afternoon of work that turned out to be…
To be continued…