photograph by Lissa Gotwals

When I was growing up in New Bern in the ’50s, people believed as absolute truth that if you ate dessert after a meal of seafood, you would probably die. In the back of my mind, I thought that maybe this rule was just a way to trick me into eating fewer sweets. There was one exception, though: lemon pie.

If you asked why, you were told something about lemon and fish. Therefore, many seafood restaurants on North Carolina’s coast served Atlantic Beach Lemon Pie, if no other dessert.

The best thing about the pie wasn’t the lemon flavor, but its salty, cracker-crumb crust — made with Ritz or saltine crackers — which distinguished it from sweet piecrusts made with crushed cookies or graham crackers.

I remembered that pie when I was asked to teach a group of chefs and food writers from the Southern Foodways Alliance about eastern North Carolina’s food traditions. After some research — a phone call here, an old church cookbook there — and some experimentation, I developed my version of the Atlantic Beach Lemon Pie.

The original had meringue, but I opted for whipped cream sprinkled with coarse sea salt. I crumbled saltine crackers for the crust. My recipe requires half a cup of lemon or lime juice, or a mix of both, and condensed milk. I served the pie to 600 Southern Foodways guests, and then brought the recipe back to my restaurant, Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.

To my surprise, the pie became a sensation. Word of it eventually reached Melissa Gray, who has a series called “Found Recipes” that airs on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

We did a segment together, and when the story aired on a Thursday, almost immediately my staff started saying that we were running out of Atlantic Beach Pie.

The next day, my baker made more pies, but customers cleaned us out again. This went on all weekend.

And just when I thought the phenomenon of Atlantic Beach Pie had subsided, I got an email from the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. Could I make Atlantic Beach Pie for 700 people? Of course.

This pie will be the death of me.

Atlantic Beach Pie

For the crust
1½ sleeves of saltine crackers
⅓ to ½ cup softened unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar

For the filling
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
½ cup lemon or lime juice, or a mix of the two
Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt for garnish

Preheat oven to 350˚. Crush the crackers finely, but not to dust. You can use a food processor or your hands. Add the sugar, then knead in the butter until the crumbs hold together like dough. Press into an 8-inch pie pan.
Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes or until the crust colors a little.

While the crust is cooling (it doesn’t need to be cold), beat the egg yolks into the milk, then beat in the citrus juice. It is important to completely combine these ingredients. Pour into the shell and bake for 16 minutes until the filling has set.

The pie needs to be completely cold to be sliced. Serve with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

This story was published on

Smith was the chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill for nearly three decades until his retirement in 2019. Smith is well known for his food writing — including the New York Times Notable and Food & Wine Best-of-the-Best cookbook Seasoned in the South and the bestselling Savor the South title, Crabs & Oysters.