Key West Florida is known 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 other areas of Florida and California. Key lime juice, unlike regular lime juice, is light yellow, which, together with the egg yolks, produces the filling’s pale color.
Appearing in the early 20th century the exact origins are unknown, but the first 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”, created the pie for him. It seems his crews of sponge fishermen at sea did not 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 gently 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. 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 exclusion in preferring the larger Persian lime.
The two controversial 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 is the topping. (Apparently these people have a whole lot of time on their hands) Contrary to popular belief, what makes the filling creamy is not cream whatsoever but sweetened condensed milk that’s thicker than evaporated milk and comes in a can, first introduced by the Borden Dairy firm in the late 1800s. It is possible that when the sponge divers had anything to do with the pie, they indeed had lots of canned milk, eggs and Key limes on board (and plenty of sponges for cleanup ).
Although grown for centuries in Asian and South America, they did not make an appearance in the U.S. until the late 1800s. Which means foodie president Thomas Jefferson missed out completely. (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 you like best. Additionally, there are stores which sell dozens of products improved with Key lime, like moisturizers, potpourri, candles, soaps, candies and biscuits. Unfortunately for much of America, procuring authentic Key limes is not always easy, and using regular limes just 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 yearly Key Lime Festival is held over the July 4th weekend for a celebration of their favourite citrus not just as pie but in other foods, beverages, and a valuable portion of their. Certainly these aficionados take their pie very 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.