Welcome to Florida – land of endless white sand beaches, pink flamingos and the creamy light yellow culinary delight known as Key Lime Pie. Yes, I said yellow. And yes, the easiest way to spot a tourist to this magnificent state is to watch and see who orders that ridiculous green impostor.
Key lime trees are native to Malaysia and were most likely introduced to the Florida Keys during the 1500s by the Spanish. This English word “lime” derived from the Arabic word “lima”. “Key” refers to the Florida Keys where the fruit has been naturalized over the past centuries. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the term “key lime” was in 1905 in an issue of the Country Gentleman, where it was used to describe this amazing fruit as “the finest on the market. It is aromatic, juicy, and highly superior to the lemon.” In other parts of the world, this fruit may be known as the West Indian lime, the bartender’s lime, or the Omani lime. In Mexico, a distinct variety with a thicker skin and darker green color is known simply as the Mexican lime. Philippine varieties are also available and have various names including dayap and bilolo.
No matter the name, these small globes of goodness are valued for their unique flavor compared to other limes, with the “Key lime” usually described as possessing a more tart and bitter flavor. Some attribute their flavor to the climatic conditions that are crucial for this citrus tree to thrive. The Key lime tree does best in sunny sites, well-drained soils, good air circulation, and protection from cold wind. Due to its shallow root system, soil preparation is critical in order to allow proper root anchorage and growth. Unfortunately, a hurricane in 1926 hit South Florida and destroyed the Key lime plantations in the region. Growers replanted with a similar Persian lime as it was easier to harvest and ship. Today, original Key lime trees are difficult to come by and any remaining trees are found on private property and their fruits does not leave the Florida Keys. There are some Key limes grown in the Miami area for commercial use. The tree itself is not that large and the fruit, though is buds out green and is often picked still green, will ripen into a beautiful yellow with a few brown speckles.
As for the dessert, no one is quite sure who created the first Key Lime Pie but many believe that a cook known only as Aunt Sally, perfected this sweet creamy dessert in the late 1800s while employed by William Curry (1821-1896), a ship salvager who became Florida’s first self-made millionaire. Curry was a Bahamian immigrant who made his fortune by preying on the unfortunate ships that wrecked on the reefs off the Keys. Some accounts paint a less flattering picture of the man and link him to piracy that still plagued the waters of the Caribbean. In any case, “Rich Bill” built an ornate mansion on Caroline Street in Key West which now hosts travelers as a lavish inn.
The recipe for this unique delight was not written down until the 1930s as locals just knew how to make the pie. Given that there was no refrigeration, no ice and no fresh milk supply available in the Keys prior to the opening of the Overseas Highway in the 1930s, local cooks had to use ingredients that could withstand the Florida heat. Canned sweetened condensed milk, invented by Gail Borden in 1856, was one such produce and so became the key (no pun intended) ingredient in the dish that provides that smooth, creamy and delicious texture.
So beloved is this pie that state legislation was introduced in 1965 calling for a $100 fine to be imposed on anyone advertising key lime pie that was not made with actual key limes. This bill did not pass but in 1994, the State Legislature officially recognized Key lime pie as an important symbol of Florida. Much later, and against the opposition from the pecan growers located in the northern regions of the state, Key Lime Pie became the official state pie of Florida on July 1, 2006.
The real thing
True Key Lime Pie has long been considered the official pie of the Florida Keys, or as the locals call it, The Conch Republic. Throughout the Keys, every restaurant worth its salt serves this wonderful creation and although the recipe might differ a bit from place to place, they all blend together the three simple ingredients of eggs, sweetened condensed milk and or course Key limes for a taste sensation that no one can forget. So go ahead, order the pie! It might come on a graham cracker crust or in a pastry shell. It could be serves with meringue or whipped cream or neither. It might have a filling that needed to be baked or just refrigerated. There are so many versions to experience and enjoy. Just remember, under no circumstance should you ever think that this special treat is served green – authentic Key lime pie is like its mature namesake – light yellow.