new Things I Ate in Cambodia: An Ode to Key Lime Pie

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

An Ode to Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie is my favorite dessert.

We have all got our favorites of course, and our preferences can (I theorize) be traced back to early influences. Jeb likes apple pie because his mama made it on Thanksgiving, Tricia favors pineapple cake because she was born in Hawaii, and me, well, me: I like key lime pie because I am a native Floridian, and they have it at Florida Publix grocery stores, and brothers and sisters, it is damn good.

Don't cast up your noses immediately at the mere thought of consuming a mere grocery-store pariah, a foodie pariah-pie, a rightful outcast. After all, Key Lime Pie is in and of itself a low-rent operation, a food that is essentially unable to be dandied up, to be turned into gourmet cuisine. No matter how artisan the limes are, no matter how hand-whipped the whipped cream is or how organic the graham cracker crust is, no matter what, key lime pie is still made with condensed milk.

Match, set, the hipster foodie contingent is out in the cold, they have no defenses against condensed milk. For a key lime pie would be nothing without condensed milk, would not possess its cool and delightfully smooth creaminess, would not be the delightful hot-weather treat that it currently is. Condensed milk is key.

I went to Florida early last month, to visit my grandparents. I had one request for my grandmother. "Have a key lime pie for me in the fridge." The same request I make every time. You can't get good ones in California - they do key lime tarts, which are sissified, do not fufilll my needs completely. No, I need key lime pie in total, the right stuff, and I got it. That evening, watching Rick Steve's in Amsterdam on my grandparent's television, I popped open the box of key lime pie. I cut myself a large slice. I sat Indan style on the rug and ate it. Mostly with my hands, like a wild jungle savage. It was more delightful then I can say. I licked my fingers.

Where did key lime pie come from? From what genius brain did it emerge?

William Curry himself.

The Key Lime pie story, most agree, begins with a Mr. William Curry. Curry began life in 1821, born into a dirt-poor Bahamian immigrant family in Green Turtle Cay. He soon became a salvager, rescuing people from the water after their ships had been ransacked by pirates. His success as an early search and rescue stud led him to bigger and better things: via clever manipulation of the stock market, he would become Key West's first millionaire, and began building the elaborate and still-standing Curry Mansion in 1855. He died in 1896 as Florida's richest man. His descendants still reside in the Keys, keeping up the mansion and maintaining it as a luxe bed and breakfast.

So what does Mister Curry have to do with Florida's most excellent dessert? His cook,of course. Only known as "Aunt Sally," this delightful woman is thought to have created Key Lime pie in the mansion's kitchen in the late 1800's. Some posit she got the idea from local sponge fisherman, who often brought condensed milk, limes, and eggs with them on their expeditions, producing an ideal climate for Key Lime pie creation. Many credit Key West's lack of fresh milk as a major agent in the pie's genesis- condensed milk was what people used instead of the fresh stuff, and condensed milk is what makes key lime pie so damn good in the first place. Some say the first key lime pies weren't even baked, relying on the reaction between the juice and the milk to firm up. The first official mention of Key Lime Pie occurs in a 1930's newspaper, pitched to tourists as an exotic treat. Key lime pie has been going strong ever since. I suspect Florida restaurants lose their food-service license if it isn't on the menu.

So what about the key limes? Odds are good they're not what you're getting in your pie. The tiny, intensely flavorful fruits arrived in Florida from Malaysia around the 1500's. The hurricane of 1926 and Citrus canker disease devastated South Florida key lime plantations, and growers replaced the plants with hardier Persian limes. This means that finding an actual key-lime in a key-lime pie is somewhat akin to finding a magical unicorn in your bathroom.

Try telling that to Florida State Representative Bernie Papy, who in 1965 attempted to pass legislation that would slap a $100 fine on anyone selling pie made without real key limes. Needless to say, it didn't work. (Watch out, there be pie bandits among us! Oh no, Aunt Irma's in lock up! She lied about the limes!) Most of today's key limes pies are made with juice imported from Mexico and South America.

How does one define a good key lime pie? Everyone's got their sweet spot, but I like them simple. No green food coloring, for Christ's sake - a vaguely yellowish color is all that should be going on. The filling should be creamy and solid, with a nice give to it. The flavor should be tart, more crisp and bright then creamy and sweet. A fresh graham cracker crust, not too sweet, delightfully crumbly. Some real whipped cream around the edges. Some swear by key lime pie with a healthy adornment of meringue in top, which sounds good to me - I just haven't run across one made like that before. Key lime tarts, needless to say, are just wrong somehow.

As for real key lime juice vs. plain old lime juice? What's the taste difference? Is it really noticeable? Someone needs to do a taste test and report back. Maybe I will someday. Perhaps.

More links:

An excellent newspaper article on Key Lime Pie's history.

The Curry Mansion's official website.

The Blonde Giraffe Key Lime Pie factory. These guys have it all: from pie to key lime pie cookies to pie on a goddamn stick, they've thought of everything.

Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shop. Every key lime product known to man available here, including key lime moisturizer, key lime spicy barbeque sauce, key lime pretzels, and yeah, maybe a pie or two.

Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies. These look pretty good, and these folks are committed to using real fresh squeezed key limes, all the time, no ifs-ands-or-buts. God bless em'.


Anonymous said...


KeylimeSteve said...

Great piece, and I do appreciate the mention/link to us.