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The claim to having the best Key lime pie is one made by many, but you want to believe Steve Tarpin when he says his are the real deal—mostly because it’s clear he wouldn’t give a damn if you disagree. Steve is the owner of Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, and he does make a mean one. With a graham cracker crust and the telltale yellow filling made with real Key limes, the pies are sweet, unsubtle, stubbornly content in their own quality—rather like their maker.
In flip-flops and a T-shirt, with a cigarette dangling between a graying mustache and beard, Tarpin oversees pie operations down a cobblestone street in Red Hook. The lineup has been simple and mostly unchanged over the years: Key lime pies, plus chocolate-dipped single slices of pie, or “swingles,” on sticks.
Now, the neighboring warehouses hold other food artisans, but if that creates some kind of utopian camaraderie, Tarpin isn’t part of it. “I’ve heard it referred to as a tightly knit community,” he says of his out-of-the-way neighborhood. “I don’t know how tight that weave is.” He was here before small-batch whiskey, and it’s easy to imagine him still making pies long after pretty jars of mayonnaise no longer grace shelves. Amid the artisanal overload, to him, “We’re all making widgets.”
That his widget is Key lime pie stems from what he calls the dissatisfying experience of eating mediocre pies back in Florida. As he explains, “It’s easier to make your own rather than buy some crap that someone’s making.” Curmudgeonly purism became a business plan nearly 20 years ago when he brought pies to a cookout and one guest asked him to make a few for the restaurant he owned. The rest is a history now chronicled everywhere from the Food Network to a Swedish travel guide, making the wholesale bakery something of pilgrimage destination.
It is a 1953 Ford truck (the color of pie) that Steve credits with his booming success. After four years of making pies in a tiny oven held shut with a bungee cord, he bought the truck to make deliveries—a move that was only a bit calculated. Savvy to smart marketing before vintage vehicles became the food artisan norm, he knew the press would follow his little yellow truck.
The truck now sits, a testament to his storied past, in front of the warehouse at Valentino Pier where Tarpin has been since June. The move, though prompted by the destruction Sandy wrought at his old operations at Pier 41, was a welcome one. His view of the hurricane is less of a lament than a pragmatic shrug. “Sandy created that paradigm shift that put things that were possibilities in the realm of reality,” he says. “She just opened up the idea for you to think differently.” This is a man who has weathered much, one who inspired the child’s drawing tacked on the bakery wall in which a burly Tarpin lifts a car high above his head, pectorals bulging and covered in squiggly hairs.
The phone rings. Steve answers: “Bakery.” He pulls a cigarette from a pack lying on the counter next to a small bowl of limes. His pies have no mission or agenda, other than to speak out against bottled juice and Persian limes in disguise. He is, as he claims, “a bit of a purist.” He’ll eighty-six trans fats at Bloomberg’s request; he’ll use real sugar if Whole Foods prefers; and maybe, he says with mock enthusiasm, he’ll even switch to cage-free eggs. But at the end of the day, it’s about the little yellow limes that his mother once picked from a neighbor’s tree and mailed to him by the shoebox-full. When demand outstripped the capacity of this tree, he began importing them from Mexico; while Key lime trees abound in Florida backyards, there has been no commercial production in the States since a 1935 hurricane.
Despite his gruffness, there’s a glimmer of sentimentality in how he talks about his pies, the same that comes over him when he talks about cooking a freshly caught fish (he’ll launch his boat when the striped bass get going) or the Mexican folk art he and his wife dabble in dealing. When it comes to commitment to authenticity, hand-woven carpets aren’t so different from pies. He muses about getting something going in the mezcal business. Would he ever put it in the pies? No, comes the purist’s swift and sure response. But the entrepreneur reconsiders—why not? He’s planning on rolling out a chipotle swingle soon. And a Key lime cocktail, that could be good. They might just call it a Lime Stevie.