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 grow in the Florida keys. Key limes are smaller, more sour and salty than the common limes we buy year-round in grocery shops and grown abundantly in different regions of Florida and California. Key lime juice, unlike regular lime juice, is light yellow, which, along with the egg yolk, produces the filling’s pale shade.
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 boat 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 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. Key limes (also known as Mexican or West Indian limes) are the most frequent lime found throughout the world; the U.S. is the exception in preferring the larger Persian lime.
Both contentious versions center around crust and topping. Early pies probably didn’t even have a crust, but sailors vacillate between traditional pie crust and graham cracker. And then there’s the topping. (Apparently these people have a whole lot of time on their hands) Contrary to popular belief, what makes the filling creamy isn’t cream whatsoever but sweetened condensed milk which is thicker than evaporated milk and comes in a can, first introduced by the Borden Dairy firm in the late 1800s. It is possible that if the sponge divers had anything to do with the pie, they really had lots of canned eggs, milk 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. before the late 1800s. Which means foodie president Thomas Jefferson missed out completely. (How he would have loved these pies!)
If you go to Key West, pie factories and bakeries abound, and you can literally eat your way from one end to another, reveling in the various offerings and deciding for yourself which you like best. Additionally, there are stores 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 isn’t always simple, and using regular limes simply won’t do. Oh sure, you can buy bottled juice which the locals would frown on, but for some it is much better than nothing.
Beginning in 2013, the yearly Key Lime Festival is held over the July 4th weekend as a celebration of their favourite citrus not just as pie but in different foods, drinks, and an important part of their. Certainly 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 police will find you and have you arrested.