Key West Florida is famous for two things: the Ernest Hemingway home (with its 6 toed cats) and Key lime pie, named after limes which increase in the Florida keys. Key limes are smaller, more tart and aromatic than the common limes we purchase year-round in grocery shops and grown abundantly in different 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 earliest recorded mention of Key lime pie might have been produced by William Curry, a boat salvager and Key West’s first millionaire. Supposedly his cook,”Aunt Sally”, made the dish to get him. It seems his crews of sponge fishermen at sea didn’t have access to ovens but the first version allowed the creamy pie to be ready without baking. Early writings say that Aunt Sally’s variation called for a graham cracker crust and softly whipped cream.
Many cooks and bakers in Florida claim their recipe is the sole authentic version. Be that as it may, the filling is rarely contested: instead, most debates revolve around the crust and topping. Everyone does agree, however, that green food coloring is for amateurs, and a proper version ought to 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 did not even have a crust, but sailors vacillate between traditional pie crust and graham cracker. And then there’s the topping. (Apparently these folks have a lot of time on their hands.) Contrary to popular belief, what makes the filling creamy isn’t cream at all but sweetened condensed milk which is thicker than evaporated milk and comes in a can, initially 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 really had plenty of canned eggs, milk and Key limes on board (and a good deal of sponges for clean-up).
In other countries where Key limes grow, they are used more commonly in several dishes and as a favorite flavoring. Although grown for centuries in Asian and South America, they didn’t make an appearance in the U.S. before the late 1800s. (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 another, reveling in the different offerings and deciding for yourself which one you like best. Additionally, there are shops which sell dozens of products enhanced with Key lime, like moisturizers, potpourri, candles, soaps, candies and biscuits. Unfortunately for much of America, procuring authentic Key limes is not always simple, and using regular limes simply won’t do. Oh sure, you can purchase bottled juice which the locals would frown on, but for some it is better than nothing.
Beginning in 2013, the annual Key Lime Festival is held over the July 4th weekend for a celebration of their favorite citrus not only as pie but in different foods, beverages, and an important part of their. Clearly these aficionados take their pie quite seriously and expect no less from anyone else. And incidentally, don’t even think about using frozen topping. The whipped cream authorities will find you and have you arrested.