Nuts about pie
Simonsen’s recipe still whips up sweet memories decades later
BY RACHEL CUCCURULLO
Ask anyone who either grew up in or visited Fort Pierce in the 1950s through the late 1980s, and they will know of The Peanut Butter Pie. While there may be a couple of variations of it, the heart of this inimitable recipe remains the same. The delicious dessert has been circulating among local families for several decades, but many wonder where the recipe originated from.
“Rumor has it that Mrs. Simonsen’s Peanut Butter Pie recipe was come upon purely by accident,” says Nancy Bennett, a Fort Pierce native and director of the St. Lucie County Regional History Center. “She was trying to make her coconut custard pie but ran out of the coconut and replaced that with peanut butter instead.”
When Elna Simonsen’s husband, Olaf, voiced his love for her inadvertent creation, she decided to make the pie a regular menu offering at the restaurant they both owned — Simonsen’s Seafood Restaurant.
The Simonsens were of Scandanavian descent and moved to the Fort Pierce area in the 1930s. In 1940, they obtained the title to the building where the restaurant would be located on the south side of the road that led to the old South Bridge. According to the city directory, the restaurant was open from 1947 to 1977 and then taken over by another couple who maintained a similar menu and setting through the mid 1990s.
Simonsen’s Seafood Restaurant opened in 1947 at Fisherman’s Wharf. Later, the family added a second story where the bar and lounge was housed.
The restaurant overlooked the Indian River and was a popular weekday lunch spot. It was also well-known for its weekly Sunday smörgåsbord.
RECIPE WAS SHARED
The Simonsens held a weekly smörgåsbord every Sunday. The buffet-style meal was well-known and thoroughly enjoyed among Fort Pierce locals for many years.
“I moved to Fort Pierce in 1957 and Simonsen’s Restaurant was around as long as I knew,” Don Clark, 91, says. “Sunday dinners were a real special treat for the family. There were all kinds of food and desserts and of course, that peanut butter pie.”
Clark moved to Florida from Pennsylvania and says he remembers Simonsen’s being a busy place for quite a while. He received his handwritten copy of the peanut butter pie recipe from the Summerlin family, with whom he was close.
“Oh, I’ve made that pie quite a few times, it’s a good one,” Clark says. “I can recite it from memory. It’s also printed in a couple of local cookbooks.”
Mrs. Simonsen’s Peanut Butter Pie recipe has been printed in Sharing the Bounty, a cookbook that was made to benefit the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church scholarship fund. Her recipe was also printed in the Indian River Community College Foundation cookbook, Indian River Cuisine, in 1979.
MERINGUE IS THE SECRET
Both recipes are cited by locals and some say they’ve tried it with creamy or crunchy peanut butter. Creamy peanut butter has proven to be the more popular choice, but the brand doesn’t seem to matter much so long as the meringue is just the right consistency, that’s what makes it so special.
Most peanut butter pie recipes are fairly quick and easy to make. The baker usually takes cream cheese, peanut butter and confectioner’s sugar. The ingredients are blended together and, voila, you’ve made yourself a peanut butter pie in less than 10 minutes — short of the 2 hours chilling in the fridge.
What makes Mrs. Simonsen’s pie so unique, is that it’s a take on a custard pie, which takes longer to make. The top is a soft, fluffy meringue with just the right amount of crisp in the peaks and that’s where the peanut butter surprise is, not in the filling.
Rita Piero, another Fort Pierce resident, agrees that Mrs. Simonson’s recipe is the best around.
From start to finish, the pie takes upward of 21/2 to three hours to make. In order to make any meringue, you have to be sure to incorporate the sugar slowly. Using quite a bit of arm muscle, you will beat the egg whites into the uniquely stiff peaks present in a meringue.
“The thing with this pie is it’s not worth it to make just one,” Wendy Bishop, née Koblegard, a Fort Pierce native says. “It’s a bit time-consuming, so I always make several at once.”
Bishop recalls that she first tried the pie when her mother-in-law baked it on many an occasion. Bishop herself started making the infamous peanut butter pie a little over a decade ago. A relative owned a small barbecue restaurant and asked Bishop if she knew of the recipe. She gave it a try and, for a little while, was baking pies to sell at his restaurant.
“It was a lot of fun to be able to do that for him,” Bishop says. “And whether it’s for a family gathering or a bake sale, I’ve been making them ever since. It seems to be a tradition in the Fort Pierce area.”
Many folks also debate about the use of corn starch versus flour for the meringue. Some say that corn starch has to be used because of the humidity in Florida, while others stick with flour.
“When you use the flour, you’re liable to end up with more lumps,” Bishop says. “It’s easier with corn starch, because you can just smooth out any lumpiness.”
Bishop and Clark both mentioned that the temperature of the egg is an important factor when making the pie. If the egg is too cold or the outside weather is a little too wet, you may run into some issues.
“The Simonsens were always very kind and welcoming to their guests and the dining room had a lively atmosphere,” Clark says. “Everyone knew each other and everyone ate that pie.”
It seems that the Simonsens left a mark on Fisherman’s Wharf and Fort Pierce. Their restaurant was a safe space for family gatherings and good food. Olaf Simensen died Dec. 15, 1986, and Elna lived for several more years. They are always referred to in the kindest of words and Mrs. Simonsen’s pie recipe is sure to stick around for generations to come.