THE COASTAL COOK: KEY LIME TIME

How a tasty pie made from this tart little
citrus fruit has come to symbolize Florida

coastalCookKeyLime

STORY BY WINNIE EDWARDS
PHOTOS BY MICAH KVIDT

For many, the phrase “Key lime” conjures up the warmth of tropical breezes and all the divine delicacies found only in Florida. The flavor of this prized lime is so lively and bright, with an essence so uniquely aromatic, that once you experience its freshly squeezed goodness in dishes, cocktails and baked goods, a feeling sets in that no other citrus will do.

I grew up with a real Key lime tree in my backyard. Making pies with my mom and setting up limeade stands down the street with my best friend are some of my most joyous childhood memories. Today, like many I’ve surprisingly encountered, I’m a bit obsessed and can’t live without Key lime effervescence in my life—kind of like people who carry around hot sauce in their purse.

The most famous use for the Key lime, and the reason for its legendary status, is Florida Key lime pie. It is surprisingly simple to make, yet surrounded by so much myth and debate.

So where did this little, yellow-green fruit with bracingly sour, mouth-puckeringly tart juice come from? Cultivated for thousands of years in the Indo-Malayan region, the Key lime made its way to North Africa and the Near East via Arabian traders, and then was carried on to Palestine and Mediterranean Europe by the Crusaders. Christopher Columbus is actually credited with bringing the Key lime to Haiti, with Spanish settlers later introducing it to Florida. The Key lime tree became naturalized throughout the Caribbean, tropical areas of Central and South America, and the Florida Keys. Commercial production in Florida in Orange and Lake counties was evident by 1883; small commercial plantings occurred in the Florida Keys from 1913 to 1926 and in Miami-Dade County from the 1970s to early 2000s.

The Key lime along with other Florida citrus has seen its fair share of hard times. Hurricanes and citrus canker over the years have seriously hindered growth and depleted supply. But since the lift of the canker ban, the Key lime tree is making a comeback; and if you’re lucky, you’ve got Key limes growing in your backyard.

In 1965, Florida State Rep. Bernie Papy Jr. introduced legislation calling for a $100 fine to be levied against anyone advertising Key lime pie that is not made with Key limes. Obviously, this bill did not pass; but in 1994 the State Legislature officially recognized Key lime pie as an important symbol of Florida.

The road to becoming the official state pie was not an easy one. Since the 1980s, North Florida lawmakers have declared that a pie made of pecans, grown in Florida, would better reflect the state’s history. However, House Bill 453 and Senate Bill 676 of the Florida Legislature’s Regular 2006 Session made the Key lime pie the official Florida state pie as of July 1, 2006.

As to who made the first Key lime pie, no one really knows for sure as it has never been officially documented. One theory is that William Curry (1821-1896), a ship salvager and Florida’s first self-made millionaire, had a cook known as “Aunt Sally” who created the pie in the late 1800s. Some researchers claim to have seen Aunt Sally’s original recipe.

It was not until the 1930s that the first recipes were written down. No fresh milk, no refrigeration, and no ice was available in the Keys until the arrival of tank trucks with the opening of the Overseas Highway in 1930. Because of this lack of milk, local cooks had to rely on canned sweetened condensed milk, which was invented in 1856 by Gail Borden.

Most historians now concede that Aunt Sally probably didn’t create the Key lime pie, but probably perfected a delicacy that was the creation of fishermen and sponge divers working in the area. Most likely, they combined the locally abundant limes with the condensed milk and eggs they had on their boats.

Almost every family in Florida has a recipe for Key lime pie and they all claim it’s the most authentic version. The filling is rarely disputed: Everyone agrees that green food coloring is for in-landers and that a proper version is pale yellow. Rather, most debates revolve around the other two variables, crust and topping. Battle lines in the crust camp are drawn between traditional graham cracker, cookie, pastry, or a combination of ingredients. The debate over topping is equally contested at farmers’ markets and church bake-sales far and wide. Some believe that a lime pie can only be considered “Key” if sporting a lofty tower of meringue. Others argue that a slice of any selfrespecting Key lime pie is punctuated with a stylish dollop of whipped cream, preferably one that twists and turns artfully upwards. And yet there are some that believe a simple, classic version, sans topping, is the key to the Key lime lover’s heart.

I made my first Key lime pie when I was 10. I’ve been making them ever since for family and friends and spreading my love for this lime and this pie for nearly 30 years. My recipe has evolved over time. I’m ready to share my most favorite one with my Edible friends.

RECIPE

THE COASTAL COOK’S KEY LIME PIE

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