Key Lime Pie: The Search Begins

I was a little startled lately to read that “key limes are the pink flamingos of Florida food, and they are a celebrated part of local color.” I don’t know what startled me more, the confusion of the color of the limes with pink or the realization that I have, apparently, missed the local key lime festival again this year.

I presume that the author was referring to the rarity of both flamingos and key limes, at least in Florida. There are flamingos in other parts of the world, and the same is true for “key limes” which are actually from Malaysia. How interesting, I think, that two items that say “Florida” to so many people are, in fact, phantoms from a not too distance past before plume hunters, hurricanes, and civilization tore through SoFLA.

Meanwhile, Prentiss and I are starting our search for the perfect Key lime pie. The challenge begins with some basic questions: Graham-cracker or pastry crust? Meringue or whipped cream? Cooked or uncooked filling? Fresh limes or lime juice? And, of course, can a Key lime pie be made with regular, old, every day, produce department limes?

We’ll let you know how our studies progress. I’m all for trying out a gingersnap crust, and I’m totally opposed to making the pie with any time of lime but a true “key,” but on the other hand, I’d rather use bottled juice from real Key limes than use fresh limes that aren’t Key at all.

Prentiss and I do agree, however, with the no green food coloring rule, and we’ll immediately rule out any recipe that even hints at artificial color.

I’ve been studying up a little on the history of the Key lime, and I’m not surprised to learn that no one knows who made the first Key lime pie. After all, who made the first apple pie, chocolate silk pie, or Alan Shepard pie. Oh, wait, that last one would be me.

It is possible, however, that the first Key lime pie of not was made by one “Aunt Sally,” the cook for one William Curry, who laid the foundation of his fortune as a “ship salvager” in the mid-1800s. Today, the staff at the Curry Mansion Inn in Key West still crank out the pies. Perhaps a field trip is in order to investigate the current incarnation of Aunt Sally’s pie.

There is, supposedly, no record of a written Key lime pie recipe written down before the 1930s. The supposition that “everyone just knew how to make the pie” puzzles me, because now I want to know how “everyone” forgot to make the pie. Was there a plague of amnesia, as there was in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude? Was there perhaps a cataclysm or sorts, wiping out the knowing bakers? Or did the Key lime pie bakers decide en masse to take their knowledge with them to the grave? Or elsewhere?

Here’s another aspect of Key lime pie history. A crucial ingredient in Key lime pie is sweetened condensed milk, which was invented by Gail Borden in 1856. No sweetened condensed milk, no Key lime pie. At least nothing that resembled our current dessert. As for the limes, they probably started growing as soon as the Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s, bringing yellow-green golf-ball size limes from Malaysia. And they continued to grow until the hurricane of 1926 which wiped them out. Most limes in Florida now are Persian, not Key.

The lime trees that remain are said to be “ferocious” in nature, and I’m not really sure what that means at all. Prentiss and I will try our hand at growing a few around the edge of the driving range, maybe start a little grove down the lane by my turquoise conch cottage.

Floridians are quite passionate about their Key limes, and their Key lime pie.  In 1965, Florida State Representative Bernie Papy, Jr., introduced a bill that would have levied a $100 fine against anyone who advertised a Key lime pie not made with Key limes. Alas, the bill did not pass.  But, in 1994, the legislature did decree Key lime pie as the OFFICIAL Florida state pie.

Florida State Pie:

photo of key lime pie

Prentiss and I will be more than pleased to hear from you. Seriously, if you have a treasured Key lime pie recipe, we’ll be glad to try it out, and we’ll let know how all of us at the Slice of Heaven 24-Hour Pie Shop and Driving Range rate it. And you are always welcome to drop by and rate our Key lime pies, too.

One comment

  1. tenenbaum.susan says:

    The confusion here is not so much pink v. green, but animal v. vegetable (or, in this case, fruit). I don’t want any flamingos in my pie, domestic or malaysian. Nor four and twenty blackbirds. And forget cream v. meringue. It’s got to be meringue. But I hope Prentis won’t stand in the way of a gingersnap crust. The main thing is that each layer – crust, lime center, meringue, must silky smooth and elegant, with the barest hint of tang. It can in no way be ferocious, which would mean thorny, as will be the trees you plan to plant on the periphery of the range. And you know, I’ve never actually had a key lime pie that was JUST PERFECT, so as the recipes pour in and you begin to prepare them, I’m going to cut myself a slice of each and every one, and eat it, squatting behind the counter to avoid the prying eyes of fastidious diners and health inspectors, and you will hear my judgment of each. Yes, you will. Oh yes.

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