On the last day of my trip to the Florida Keys, I was served my final piece of key lime pie – a breakfast dish called Key Lime Pie French Toast at Azur Key West restaurant. Seated on a comfy banquette, natural sunlight streaming in the windows of the modern and airy space, I expected the brunch staple to arrive with a spritz of lime juice and a graham cracker crumb or two. To my surprise the dish was served with actual pieces of pie sandwiched between the thick slices of eggy toast. And with that, I unapologetically devoured my 12th piece of key lime pie of my five-day trip. So though I didn’t eat all the pie in the Florida Keys, I did some major damage for sure, and I’m not even counting the three different key lime pie martinis I enjoyed on separate occasions as well.
Why do Floridians get so excited about key lime pie? That’s mainly because it’s created with the local fruit that elicits their pride. Key limes are a thing – the pie’s not just named after the chain of islands in the Atlantic. Different from the large green limes used to make margaritas (those are actually called Persian limes), key limes are smaller, tarter, and yellower with a bit of a floral taste. They were abundant in the Keys until a hurricane wiped out most of the key lime trees in the 1926. Those crops were replaced with their Persian cousins; now you’ll only find key limes in the backyards and gardens of locals. Most of our key limes now come from Mexico where the fruit is a touch more acidic than the originals, though some true Florida key limes are still grown in other parts of the state.
I had no idea the history of the pie was so rich and tied into the development of the area. Though the origins are hotly debated among Conchs (a nickname for those native to Key West) the legend goes something like this:
In the late 1800s, fishing for sponges was a lucrative business. Men, also known as “hookers” for the hoe-like rake they used to scoop up (or hook) their bounty, would be out to sea for long stretches of time and could only keep non-perishables on board the ship. Because there was no dairy farming in the Keys at the time, canned milk was the only option. The sailors brought plenty along with them in addition to scurvy-preventing key lime juice, eggs, and Cuban bread.
For a refreshing dessert, they’d mix egg yolks, canned sweetened condensed milk, and the lime juice in an empty wine bottle and set it in the sun to accelerate a chemical reaction, which created a thickening of the mixture. Then they’d pour it over a stale piece of bread and voila, a super-tasty at-sea confection.
My Key Lime Pie Diary
Credit for the pie as we know it today goes to a woman who went down in history as “Aunt Sally,” a cook for Florida businessman (and the state’s first millionaire) named William Curry. Inspired by the sailor’s recipe, a lemon meringue pie, she introduced the graham cracker crust and used the leftover egg whites to make the iconic meringue topping. For those who want to make a culinary pilgrimage, the Curry House Mansion now operates as an inn.
Though a majestic choice for presentation, meringue is hard to whip up and maintain, especially in Florida’s humid temperatures, which reduced the pie’s shelf life. As fresh milk became readily available in the area, restaurants realized they could keep a pie longer if they scrapped the merengue dolloped it with whipped cream just before serving. And with that Team Cream vs. Team Merengue debates were born. “We’re pretty laid back in the Florida Keys and don’t get contentious over very many things—except, that is, whether key lime pie should be topped with whipped cream or meringue,” says Carol Shaughnessy, longtime resident and representative for the Florida Key & Key West.
At The Fish House Restaurant & Fish Market, the first stop of my trip, I attacked Piece 1 (a traditional pie with meringue) and Piece 2 (a coconut key lime pie) with gusto, only noticing the major differences between them. As the week progressed and the laid-back vibe of the the Keys sank in, I slowed down and savored each slice a bit more: the deconstructed postmodern pie-in-a-jar from Matt's Stock Island Kitchen & Bar I ate outside by a marina, the conical meringue on the mini pie I had in Blue Heaven's backyard while watching loose hens and roosters running around tending to important chicken business, and the ones made with coconut reminding me I was in the America’s Caribbean.
The thing is, I didn’t really try all the pie in the Florida Keys so I’ll be back for sure. In the meantime, I made this beaut at home using the recipe and bottled juice from Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe and adding meringue. If you want to try making your own, check out this official recipe, courtesy of the Florida Keys. Just remember these tips when baking and eating: Key lime pie should never be green, but a light yellow with the slightest tinge of green. If you can’t get key limes you can order bottled juice or use a mixture of Persian lime and lemon juice. And a pre-made graham cracker crust is absolutely an acceptable cheat.