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 purchase year-round in grocery stores 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 specific origins are unknown, but the earliest recorded mention of Key lime pie may have been produced 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 didn’t have access to ovens but the first version allowed the creamy pie to be prepared without baking. Early writings say 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 seldom contested: instead, most debates revolve around the crust and topping. Key limes (also known as Mexican or West Indian limes) are the most frequent lime found across the world; the U.S. is the exception in preferring the larger Persian lime.
The two controversial 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. 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 isn’t cream whatsoever but sweetened condensed milk that’s thicker than evaporated milk and comes in a can, initially introduced by the Borden Dairy company in the late 1800s. It is possible that when the sponge divers had anything to do with the pie, they indeed 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 many dishes and as a favorite flavoring. Although grown for centuries in Asian and South America, they did not 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 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 you like best. Additionally, there are stores which sell dozens of products improved with Key lime, like moisturizers, potpourri, candles, soaps, candies and cookies. Unfortunately for much of America, procuring authentic important limes isn’t always easy, and using regular limes simply won’t do. Oh sure, you can purchase bottled juice that the locals would frown on, but for some it is much better than nothing.
Starting in 2013, the yearly Key Lime Festival is held over the July 4th weekend for a celebration of their favourite citrus not only as pie but in different foods, beverages, 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 authorities will find you and have you arrested.