Lime, Salt & Peggy Lee: The Texas Margarita Pie

Texas Margarita Pie (dessertfortwo.com)

It’s a long, winding trail to the Margarita Pie of Texas, with detours along the Mexican border, intoxicating flights of imagination to Bali, even speculation into the private life of the marriage of singer Peggy Lee and her husband.

Galveston, a gambling, drinking kind of Texas town.

Among the tall tales of Texas is how that most historic of documents, a certification that the drink which inspired the pie was borne upon humanity in the Gulf Coast city of Galveston, Texas, has now been lost forever on the bottom of the sea, a victim of  the unmerciful Hurricane Ike.

The classic old-school Margarita.

Nobody can affix exact credit for the concoction which the U.S.A. has come to love as the Margarita, but its origins are definitely Mexican, since the primary ingredient in both the drink and the pie is that quintessential South-of the-Border booze of Tequila. In fact, all a classic Margarita really does is soften the blow of a straight Tequila shot with its traditional lick of salt and suck of a lime wedge’s juice ice, by salting a glass’s rim and squeezing the juice into the drink.

Dallas socialite Margarita Sames insisted that she invented and named it after herself, after creating it at her Acapulco villa in 1948 and then began serving it to guests at her later San Antonio home. Descendants of El Paso’s Francisco “Pancho” Morales posthumously credit him with inventing it on Independence day in 1942, while serving drinks just across the border, in Juarez. Carlos “Danny” Herrera said it was his idea, cooked it up at Rancho La Gloria between Tijuana and Rosarito as a love potion for Ziegfeld Follies girl Marjorie King which soon began showing up in bars stretching from the Lone Star State‘s prairies to oil fields to hill country. (An obvious pretender to the claim was a desert barman who proved not to be Texan but Californian. Amarillo folks were mighty glad to say real quick, “thet  jes t’aint raht.” The most popular concocter of the smooth but hard-kicking Margarita, however, had not only a perpetually apt audience eager to hear him repeat the colorful details of how it all really happened, but even an “official” document, certifying Santos Cruz as “Father of the Margarita.”

The Balinese Room in its heyday.

It all happened one stormy night amid a din in a smoky honky-tonk joint on a long 600-foot pier in Galveston, Texas stretching out into the Gulf of Mexico. It happened in a legendary nightclub called the Balinese Room, where there was a casino, a dance hall and a bar lounge.  Houston gasmen, Fort Worth cattle ranchers and even Howard Hughes all high-rolled without concern about the fact that gambling in Galveston was illegal.

Sinatra and others drinking with owner Sam Maceo, at far left.

Mobster Sam Maceo who owned the swell layout had the Sheriff in his pocket. Whenever the upright Texas State Rangers began a raid, running down the full length of the pier to catch casino-players in the act, the band in the dance hall several rooms away would strike up “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You,” and chips, cards and roulette tables disappeared into secret wall compartments. Sam also got the biggest names in show biz for gigs in the lounge, from Sinatra to Sophie Tucker. On this historic night in 1948, it was Miss Peggy Lee performing.

Santos Cruz Inventor of the Texas Margarita.

From Houston “railroad people,” Cruz was only twelve years old when he began work setting up bowling pins at a Galveston alley and decided the Gulf port city would be home. By the time he was nineteen years old, he was head bartender in the “Balinese Room.” He poured jiggers for decades in Galveston’s legendary bars, from the “Century Room” to the “Crow’s Nest” to his own “Sand’s Toe,” but Santos Cruz would pour his way into history that night in 1948 when Miss Peggy Lee sauntered up to the bar after her show, sidled up to Santos and, in her smoky-toned voice, asked him to make her favorite cocktail, a Sidecar – with one request.

The triple sec and the lemon juice were fine and he could sugar the glass rim, as the drink’s recipe calls for, but drop the brandy and use her favorite booze instead.

The perfect match.

“It was almost like an accident,” Santos Cruz would long after recall, until his death in 2005. “The singer liked Tequila.” He quickly decided to salt the rim, instead of sugar it, and swap in lime juice instead of lemon, knowing both went better with Tequila.

The hit song by Lee & Barbour.

Peggy Lee was up for anything Mexican. She and her husband Dave Barbour, often took long, languid vacations down in Ensenada, Mexico. In fact, a year earlier Peggy Lee had hit the heights with her smash single, Manana, which she and Barbour had written while in their favorite country. 

Peggy Lee, about the time she inspired the Margarita.

Although sung with something of a faux Mexican accent its catchy, uptempo beat made it instantly popular and a Peggy Lee signature song. And, after belting out Manana to whistles and cheers in the Balinese Room, she clearly had Mexico on her mind as she made her way to the bar. Barbour had to quit drinking because of the kidney trouble it caused him, Peggy Lee, however, could still down the booze they both loved best – Tequila.

After a few smiling sips, Miss Lee asked Santos what he called this delicious drink. With a nod of respect to the famous singer, he referenced the formal name of “Margaret” (which she never used) and gave homage to Mexico by formally declaring the birth of “The Margarita.”

For years, many a bitter-ender tried to argue with Santos Cruz by pointing out that “Margarita” is the Spanish word for “daisy,” and that “his” drink was merely a Tequila alternative to an old brandy-based drink called “The Daisy.” Nor would he explain away claims that Dave Barbour had come up with the name for the unique libation his wife first sipped and liked that night in 1948. “I know I did it,” Santos would simply say. And to true believers, he would reveal photos from that night at the bar, a letter from Peggy Lee verifying the incident and even an “official” document printed some years later by a local tourist board.

Hours before the Margarita’s birthplace was but a memory, September 12 , 2008.

The famous “Birthplace of the Margarita” survived police raids, pummeling by high gusts and rising sea levels, closure, abandonment and dank decay only to re-open proudly in 2001 but exactly sixty years after Peggy Lee sang and Santos Cruz poured, Galveston awoke the morning after Hurricane Ike hit town to find that the Balinese Room – in fact, the entire pier, had vanished, consumed by the sea, memorabilia and all. The Margarita, of course, not only survived but has thrived. Within just six years after its invention, it earned Esquire’s “Drink of the Month” award. 

Modern medleyof  so-called Margaritas in distracting colors with odd tastes with sugar on the rim.

Traditionally served in the squat “champagne coupe” glass, by the 80s, the Margarita had been cheapened, served in junky tinted plastic glasses with droopy straws to sip out powdered mixes in bright colors and artificial fruit flavors, a favorite of spring-break college kids. Further tinkering brought it to the brink of return as a Sidecar when colored sugar was used on the rim, not salt.

The Frozen Margarita: its best creation myth had it accidentally invented by a drunk Dallas gal.

Purists don’t consider non-lime versions authentic, but the accidental alternative of the “Frozen Margarita” has passed muster, its Texas heritage legitimate. Murkier is just how it came to be. The most popular of its creation myths also emerged in the early 80s. It tells of a harried Dallas gal who’d mixed a pitcher of traditional Margaritas for some pals who were stopping in. She suddenly realized she was out of ice and shoved the pitcher in the freezer to keep cold until one of the guests she called could fetch a bag of cubes. Many beers later, she retrieved the pitcher, now full of slush, poured it in the blender and by happy accident invented the Frozen Margarita. How it caught on, who really knows but bartenders found it easy to mix and serve, and customers downed it quicker, the icy slush numbing the throat to the Tequila punch. 

What about that damned pie?

My friend, the late Liz Carpenter, Texan teller of tales.

That too seems to be claimed by Texas. At least according to this author’s late, great friend, that legendary Lone Star wit Liz Carpenter. We were having dinner together in a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C. when I noticed Margarita Pie on the dessert menu. I’d never heard of it, had she? With a Texas twinkle in her eye, Liz began to regale about some drunk Austin legislator about to fall off his barstool, trying to steady his gaze by focusing on a bartender slowly pouring out a thick, fresh batch of Frozen Margaritas from a blender. He was so far gone, he began insistently shouting out that the bartender was about to serve patrons a glass of pie batter! And while the restaurant owner had to politely but firmly hold him up and lead him out to a cab while listening to him rant on, she got an idea. “And what do you think they served the next night?!  Margarita Pie! All good ideas are stolen!”

Since then, I’ve seen this Lone Star specialty attributed to a legendary Southwestern gourmet baker but even if Liz was telling a tall one, I felt it her right, coming as it did from deep in the heart.

To satisfy East Texas and West Texas, recipes for both a Margarita Pie and Frozen Margarita Pie are offered, as are renditions of two songs associated with the pie, Peggy Lee’s Manana and Glenn Campbell’s Galveston. Either are just right for grinding up the key ingredient of both pies, the salty pretzel crust:

Margarita Pie

1 cup of heavily-salted hard pretzels

4 tablespoons of softened, salted butter (used as two tablespoons for crust, 2 tablespoons for filling)

1/4 cup sugar

1 large egg + 1 egg yolk

6 teaspoons fresh lime juice

1 drop of green food coloring

2 teaspoons tequila, divided

1/3 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons powdered sugar

Grind the pretzels to a rough powder and blend well with two tablespoons of the butter, lining a shallow pie pan with it as a crust. Then freeze. Blend well the sugar and other two tablespoons of butter, then add the full egg and the extra egg yolk. Blend well, then adding the lime juice, food coloring and lime rind strips. Over a very low flame, cook the mixture – constantly stirring with a spatula to avoid curdling and stirring the bottom and sides of the saucepan. Cook it once the mixture has thickened and just as it bubbles, no longer than five minutes. Pour it all into a small bowl and remove the lime rind. Stir in two teaspoons of Tequila. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours, certain it has thickened thoroughly. Before serving, whip the cream, powdered sugar and two remaining teaspoons of Tequila. Pour the filling into the crust and garnish with whipped cream.

Frozen Margarita Pie

 

1 1/4 cups finely crushed pretzels

2/3 cup melted, salted butter

1/4 cup sugar

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice

4 tablespoons Tequila

2 tablespoons Triple Sec

1 cup freshly whipped cream

large-grain salt

lime slices

Combine crushed pretzels, melted butter, and sugar in a small bowl and press into pie plate as crust. Refrigerate. Mix well the sweetened condensed milk, lime juice, Tequila, and Triple Sec. Fold in the whipped cream, and blend well. Pour it into the pie crust. Freeze for four hours. Allow it to soften slightly in the refrigerator before serving, and garnish with a small amount of whipped cream and large-grains of salt and lime slices.

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Categories: Americana, History, Pop Culture, Regional Food, Regionality, State Pies

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4 replies »

  1. This article is a kick. And really interesting. I always thought margaritas were too sweet as libations and should be considered desserts, and now I’ve got the recipes to make that happen in solid form. Somehow I like the Liz Carpenter vignette best. Is there any story that can’t be told in a D.C. restaurant? A collection of them would make a very entertaining book all on its own.

  2. Exhilarating article! Started to make the pie recipe, but when it came to the tequila, well you know…
    ah, maybe Manana!
    Thanks Carl!

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