Key Lime Pie Is a Modern Delicacy With Humble Beginnings

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Key lime pie, the legendary dessert of Key West, is so iconic that it recently became the official pie of the entire state of Florida. This tart and creamy, light yellow (not green, if you want to stay authentic), often meringue-topped pie is worshipped locally by Conchs (Key West natives) and around the globe by modern foodies, but key lime pie still manages to stay true to its humble beginnings.

A Juicy Past

With countless embellished versions of the famous treat appearing on menus everywhere, it's easy for an ordinary pie enthusiast to lose sight of what it takes to make a true key lime pie. Aficionados, on the other hand, haven't forgotten. For the dessert connoisseurs and pie purists abound, there's one crucial ingredient that marks an authentic key lime pie recipe, and it's not at all a surprise. Key limes, of course!

Key lime pie got its name from the green, juicy, highly acidic key limes that flourished in the Florida Keys for almost a century. Originating in the West Indies around the 1700s, the golf-ball-sized fruits made their way to the Florida Keys in 1835 where they were planted and grown commercially with much success. It wasn't long after the limes arrived that another essential key lime pie ingredient hit the scene: condensed milk. The sweetened, canned milk wasn't just good for desserts — it was a game-changer for the isolated Florida Keys islands since fresh milk wouldn't be available there until the 1930s. Thanks to a perfectly palatable partnership between the limes and the canned milk — one tart and biting, the other decadently sweet — key lime pie made its debut.

Humble Pie

But who is responsible for crafting such a celebrated recipe? Legend has it that key lime pie got a humble start in the mid-1800s with sponge fishermen at sea. Ingredients were limited on the ships, but the fishermen managed to combine bits of stale bread, condensed milk, bird eggs, and a squirt of lime to create what became the original key lime pie prototype. The story continues in the 1890s when a woman named Aunt Sally put the first key lime pie recipe on paper. As a personal cook to Key West ship supplier and millionaire William Curry, Aunt Sally had access to quite a lot of condensed milk.

While key limes are most certainly the reigning ingredient of key lime pie, this wasn't always the case. In 1926, a hurricane wiped out most of the Keys' commercial key lime crops. Persian limes (an inferior fruit, if you ask pie experts) were planted in their place and became the substitute ingredient for many years. Today, key limes remain a true local crop with only a few trees still standing in Conchs' backyards. Next time you're in Key West, enjoy an authentic slice of key lime pie — made exclusively, of course, with its most famous ingredient.

Written by Ashley Gabriel January 4, 2019
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