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Fantasy Pie Land

On 'Gilligan's Island,' Mary Ann's Coconut Cream Pies Kept the Crew Alive

January 13, 2002|PHIL BARBER | Phil Barber last wrote for the magazine about waffles

Some boys dreamed of being the Six Million Dollar Man or having a ride-along with Starsky and Hutch. I suppose I did, too. But as I soaked in my requisite three hours of daily television as a youth, I hatched a different fantasy. I wanted to be abandoned on Gilligan's Island.

Part of the attraction, I now admit, was Mary Ann. You can have your Ginger. Mary Ann's bare midriff, permanent Coppertone tan and liberal application of eye shadow combined to make the perky Kansas store clerk the object of my pre-hormonal affection. The show's other major selling point was coconut cream pie.

Every other episode, it seemed, featured a freshly baked, picture-perfect coconut cream pie. At the time, I never stopped to ponder the ingredient list. Now I envision the castaways grinding native grasses for flour and stealing speckled eggs from the nests of rare birds. I don't want to know where they got the milk.

Few people are neutral about coconut cream pie. Some, like President Bush and I, are dizzied by the combination of voluptuous cream and chewy, slightly acidic coconut. Laura Bush mailed a heart-shaped coconut cream pie from Texas to Washington, D.C., for Valentine's Day last year. Others, such as Milton Friedman, avoid the dessert. Friedman can be forgiven for his aversion. The Nobel Prize-winning economist got a coconut cream pie in the face in 1998, courtesy of the environmentalist Biotic Baking Brigade. Investigators did not disclose the recipe.

The standard Americana blueprint for coconut cream pie involves a simple cream pie recipe dressed up with shredded coconut. It's like a random and fortunate mutation, just a single trait removed from banana or chocolate cream pie. You can find more creative versions, of course. One time-honored trick is to substitute canned coconut milk for a portion of the cow's milk. Another is to support the pie with a coconut-based crust. Toppings can range from meringue to whipped cream to gooey chocolate sauce. All of them should enjoy a light snowfall of shaved coconut.

In searching for the perfect recipe, I thought the deciding factor would be texture or authentic flavor. Then I discovered "Mary Ann's Gilligan's Island Cookbook," and I knew loyalty must prevail. Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann for three seasons and romps eternally in syndication, wrote the cookbook in 1993. The final pages are devoted to no less than 13 variations of coconut cream pie. Her favorite, appearing here, is her grandmother's recipe.

Wells, who lives in the San Fernando Valley and prefers not to divulge her age, remains highly active. She runs a Film Actor's Boot Camp in Teton Valley, Idaho, and still accepts many parts. She served as co-executive producer of "Surviving Gilligan's Island," a CBS movie of the week that aired in October. She admits, however, that she will always be Mary Ann to most of the world--even in the Solomon Islands, where the wife of a tribal chief once recognized her.

Thinking of the immortal role, I have to ask: Was that really coconut cream pie that Bob Denver and company were constantly carving up on the CBS studio lot?

"If we ate it, yes," Wells says. "If it was a pie in the face, then it was just whipped cream." The Gilligan's Island Shipwreck Fantasy may have just won a new recruit in Milton Friedman.

Mary Ann's Famous Coconut Cream Pie

Graham Cracker Crust:

1 1/2 cups fine graham-cracker crumbs

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup melted butter

Filling:

3 egg yolks

Dash of salt

3/4 cup sugar

3 cups coconut milk

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup cornstarch

1 cup shredded coconut

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 egg whites

Pinch of sugar

1/4 cup shredded coconut

To make crust, mix crumbs, sugar and butter together in a bowl. Press crumb mixture into an 8- or 9-inch pie pan and bake for 8-10 minutes at 350-degrees.

For filling, in the top of a double boiler over steaming water, beat together egg yolks and salt. Add sugar, milk and butter. When bottom pot begins to boil, mix cornstarch with a small amount of water in a separate bowl. Add to egg-yolk mixture one spoonful at a time.

Cook until thick, stirring constantly with a wire whisk. Add coconut and vanilla, and pour the filling into baked pie shell. Beat egg whites with a pinch of sugar and spread meringue over pie. Sprinkle remaining coconut on top and briefly toast in oven.

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