I've seen The Last Waltz at least half a dozen times now. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down was a favorite sing-along selection in college. I'd always hoped to make it to A Midnight Ramble--my friends' farm where I spend a lot of time is right across the river--but the closest I got was a friend producing an album in the barn. I put The Band in heavy rotation as soon as I heard that Levon Helm was sick, and his death hit me hard, or as much as the passing of a personally-influential music legend who you've never met can.
Though I'd had This Wheel's On Fire on my shelf for a while, I didn't start to read it until after that sad April day. Prior to all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll (to put it simply, but accurately) in The Band's scintillating autobiography, there is this little story amid Levon's description of his upbringing in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas:
"Mom and Arlena would bake up a couple of big cakes: one coconut, one pecan. On special occasions the two moms would collaborate on lemon icebox pies, their own invention. They'd beat two cans of Pet milk until it was whipped to foam, adding sugar and lemon juice until it congealed. Then they'd freeze it in the icebox. I loved this beyond belief. It was so sweet your mouth would pucker. After I was old enough to work, they'd have to make three pies: one for each family and one for Lavon [Levon's birth name]. And I'd guard mine. Then we'd make the radio the main feature, maybe play cards, visit."
As soon as I read that, I wanted to make a similar lemon icebox pie--so sweet and tart your mouth would pucker-- in tribute to the lone American (and Southerner) of the legendary group. I wonder if that was indeed the actual recipe--nothing but sweetened condensed milk, sugar and lemon juice. Perhaps I'll try that minimalist variety at some point, but this time I opted to add a few other ingredients, and turned to Martha Hall Foose, via Francis Lam for guidance. Ms. Foose, as you'll remember, is the Mississippi chef who invented the genius sweet tea pie. With that serving as a fine recommendation, along with Francis' glowing review of her lemon icebox pie, I didn't think I could go wrong. I swapped 'nilla wafers for the graham cracker crust, upped the lemon content for a higher pucker-factor, and made a few other adjustments. Despite a few more ingredients than Mrs. Helm's, it's still a delightfully simple pie to make.
"Levon Helm's" Lemon Icebox Pie
Adapted from Martha Foose via Salon
1 1/2 c. 'nilla wafer crumbs
1/8 c. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon (I ended up not using this because we were out!)
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 14-oz cans sweetened condensed milk (Pet brand if you're trying to be authentic)
4 large egg yolks
2 packed tsp. lemon zest (add more for more pucker)
2/3 c. fresh lemon juice
2 c. heavy cream
6 Tblsp. confectioner's sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In the bowl of a food processor, combine 'nilla wafer crumbs, sugar, cinnamon, and butter and pulse until well mixed. Pat the buttery crumbs into a 9-inch pie pan, pressing mixture into the bottom and sides to form a crust. Place in oven and bake for 6-8 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool.
2. In a large bowl, whisk milk, yolks, lemon zest & lemon juice until well combined. Pour lemon filling into cooled crust and bake for 10 minutes or until set. Remove from the oven and let cool. Once at room temperature, chill pie for about 30 minutes.
3. When pie is chilled through, whip cream and confectioner's sugar until stiff peaks form. Spoon the whipped cream on top of the pie and mound decoratively. Chill for an additional hour. Serve cold.
Put The Big Pink on the record player, The Last Waltz (& Coal Miner's Daughter) on your TV screen, and Levon's favorite pie in the fridge, and you've got yourself the perfect tribute to this departed rock hero. Hell, you've got yourself the perfect night! Though there was no Band a playin', on the night we drove this Dixie pie down (terrible I know, I KNOW!), there were people a singin' and a bonfire in the country, a taco moon, and a field a light with disco fireflies. I might have even heard some Spike Jones on the Box.