Key West Florida is famous for two things: the Ernest Hemingway house (with its 6 toed cats) and Key lime pie, named after limes which grow in the Florida keys. A favorite American dessert made with Key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks, the traditional “Conch version” uses the egg whites to make a meringue topping. Key limes are smaller, more tart and aromatic than the common limes we buy year-round in grocery stores and grown abundantly in other regions of Florida and California. Key lime juice, unlike regular lime juice, is pale yellow, which, along with the egg yolks, produces the filling’s pale color.
Appearing in the early 20th century the exact origins are unknown, but the first recorded mention of Key lime pie may have been made by William Curry, a ship salvager and Key West’s first millionaire. Supposedly his cook, “Aunt Sally”, created the pie for him. It seems his crews of sponge fishermen at sea did not have access to ovens but the original version allowed the creamy pie to be prepared without baking. Early writings state that Aunt Sally’s version called for a graham cracker crust and softly whipped cream.
Many cooks and bakers in Florida claim their recipe is the only authentic version. Be that as it may, the filling is rarely disputed: rather, most debates revolve around the crust and topping. Everyone does agree, however, that green food coloring is for amateurs, and a proper version should be pale yellow. Key limes (also called Mexican or West Indian limes) are the most common lime found throughout the world; the U.S. is the exception in preferring the larger Persian lime.
The two contentious versions center around crust and topping. Early pies probably didn’t even have a crust, but now locals vacillate between traditional pie crust and graham cracker. And then there is the topping. The two camps argue meringue vs. whipped cream. (Apparently these folks have a lot of time on their hands.) Contrary to popular belief, what makes the filling creamy is not cream at all but sweetened condensed milk which is thicker than evaporated milk and comes in a can, first introduced by the Borden Dairy company in the late 1800s. It’s possible that if the sponge divers had anything to do with the pie, they indeed had plenty of canned milk, eggs and Key limes on board (and plenty of sponges for clean-up).
In other countries where Key limes grow, they are used more commonly in many dishes and as a popular flavoring. Although grown for centuries in Asian and South America, they didn’t make an appearance in the U.S. until the late 1800s. which means foodie president Thomas Jefferson missed out entirely. (How he would have loved those pies!)
If you visit Key West, pie factories and bakeries abound, and you can literally eat your way from one end to the other, reveling in the different offerings and deciding for yourself which one you like best. There are also shops which sell dozens of products enhanced with Key lime, such as moisturizers, potpourri, candles, soaps, candies and cookies. Unfortunately for much of America, procuring authentic Key limes is not always easy, and using regular limes just won’t do. Oh sure, you can buy bottled juice which the locals would frown on, but for some it’s better than nothing.
Starting in 2013, the annual Key Lime Festival is held over the July 4th weekend as a celebration of their favorite citrus not only as pie but in other foods, drinks, and an important part of their. Clearly these aficionados take their pie very seriously and expect no less from anyone else. And by the way, don’t even think about using frozen topping. The whipped cream police will find you and have you arrested.