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My first memory of the Florida Keys was a Boy Scout trip to Camp Sawyer on Summerland Key, probably around 1968. A few of us (Fox Patrol) headed down the Friday before the rest of the troops joined us on Saturday. We stopped on the way down at a small wooden smoke-shack for smoked fish, took our pick of location at the campsite, and witnessed the amazing sun set itself into the Gulf of Mexico. The following morning, standing on the bridge , I saw the same sun rise from the Atlantic. In the water below, a Manta Ray with a 15 foot wingspan breached the water, a school of Tarpon rolled past, and a group of bottlenosed dolphins sped between the pilings. At 11 years old, I was hooked.
The following years took me down to the Keys from Miami as often as I could manage to get away. Slowly, they were transformed into the destination they have become today. The old Overseas Highway, built on top of Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad was slowly replaced with a new system of bridges. Safer, faster and wider, the intimidation factor of the old highway was gone, and the traffic started flowing down the chain. Many who drove down decided not to make the return trip, and the population and building has not ceased. Almost all of the spots where we would spend the weekend fishing and sleeping outdoors are now inaccessible. The wooden smokehouse is long gone, and much of the impressions made back then are simply memories. But there are some things that will never change. Sunset in the Florida Keys will always be spectacular. The purple sky around Islamorada will stay the same. The smell of the mangroves and saltwater, thunderheads working their way East, filling the air with electricity, regardless of how much they build, these things will never change. I'll always be able to go back to what has always been special about the Florida Keys, unless the Ice Caps melt.
More than 25 years ago, I began making key lime pies at my home for family and friends. Basically, I was too disappointed with what was brought to me in a restaurant when ordering a slice. Back then it seemed as if ease-of-use and convenience had taken priority over culinary integrity. Most if not all the commercial bakeries were opting for some other method of making key lime pies other than using fresh squeezed key lime juice, and I believe the same is true today. Knowing where to get a handful of key limes anytime I needed them, I found it much more rewarding to make them myself. "If you want something done right, do it yourself"
Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad. See the entire collection of vintage S. Florida post cards here.
June of 1995, my daughter Sakura and I took a road trip from Brooklyn down to Miami. As usual, we headed down the Card Sound Road to Key Largo and beyond. I was so pleased that she referred to the Card Sound area as "the Special Place", and still does today. We stayed with family, and as I usually do, I brought key limes back north with me for pies and other treats. A few weeks after our return, I was invited to attend the annual Red  Meat Club BBQ. One of the attendee's at the BBQ had a family owned restaurant, and asked if I could make my key lime pies for them. That was the beginning of Steve's AUTHENTIC Key Lime Pies. Three pies a week.
Recalling the early days, the "business" was never really run as a business. Make a few pies, sell a few pies. A little additional income. Never any strategy or marketing campaign, I just let things grow as they would. The business would define itself. The growth would happen, in spite of the lack of sales effort. I never strayed from the tried and true recipe, and the insistence of using only fresh squeezed juice.
Those first three and a half years working from a small, cramped studio apartment were challenging. Thanks to Sakura's spirit and flexibility, we somehow managed to get the business somewhat established. With two extra "tenant fridges" in the apartment, I was forced to play Gypsy Pieman, using the walk-in refrigerators of gracious neighborhood merchants. I never took time to cost materials, I just made pies and sold them. Eventually, I had enough customers to sustain a life for Sakura and I. I managed to keep the business running and continue to fulfill my parental duties with little overlapping, although we were incredibly cramped for space. We were living on top of my work and I was working on top of our lives. Deliveries in the open-bed Ford pickup was getting difficult though, since the pies were in coolers. On very hot or rainy days, the tarp covering the coolers wasn't enough to protect them from the elements. It was time to get some new wheels. Enter the KeyLime Express.

Every Friday, for the previous three-plus years, I had been driving in Manhattan making deliveries. Over that period of time, there were a few vehicles that I could recall, and immediately associate a name with the vehicle. A restaurant, a construction company, Realtor and caterer, all had their names displayed on more than a work vehicle, they had their names on a unique vehicle that would grab your eye regardless of what painted on the vehicle. But as I noticed, I would look at the vehicle and then read the name on the side. It was pretty clear, buy a second hand delivery van (good luck here in New York City) and get lost in the pool of vehicular mediocrity, or get a gem that would make a statement and catch everybody's eye. I decided to get the gem. After posting an article on the Usenet newsgroup for collectable vehicles making a request for an early 50's Ford Panel Delivery, and being offered lots of garbage, a couple in Florida wrote me and said they had just what I was looking for. 2 months after my old buddy Mully looked at it (he said it wasn't for him, but if he saw anyone driving it, it was definitely me), I took delivery and drove her north from central Florida.

Not knowing what to expect, I headed out for the shakedown run of a 46 year old truck. But my intention was to get back home, so we simply drove. A few days on the Florida Coast, I completed the trip on the coastal route, keeping my ears tuned to the sound of the motor behind the rumble of exhaust, listening for any bugs or bombs that might be lurking under the hood. Four days later, I arrived in Brooklyn. My back went into spasms the minute I arrived, as being the only power part of the steering. I had discovered old muscles and even made a few new ones.

After a low budget sign painting (Monte even left out the U in the word squeezed, on all three sides) we were ready to roll. I just had no idea what impact this truck would have on my business. People love looking at the Express, all people, from Chinatown to Hasidic Williamsburg, the Express seems to catch everyone's eye, regardless of gender or age or whatever. Some have called it a "Happy Truck", others recount memories of similar trucks, an uncle with a plumbing business, a man who delivered diapers. After years of making and delivering pies in relative anonymity, I was there, in clear sight of the entire city called New York. But I was still working from my studio apartment, and the last people I wanted to notice me was the Department of Health. Although I knew the Express would bring me attention, I didn't need or want any until I moved into a legal food preparation location. Enter Regula's Specialty Cakes.

(to be continued)Visit the Journal, as Steve pontificates on life in the Big Apple and other oddities.


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