To foodies, Key West is best known for fresh seafood, margaritas, and, of course, Key lime pie. This town is also noted for being the southernmost point in the continental U.S.; mile zero of U.S. Route 1; and to paraphrase the words of former Key West resident Shel Silverstein, “the place where the sidewalk ends.”
My partner and I begin our research at the island’s most acclaimed tequila bar, Agave 308, where we meet David Sloan (a.k.a. Spooky Dave), local historian, ghost hunter, and author of The Key Lime Pie Cookbook.
Dave provides us with a brief outline on the origins of this famous pie and its key ingredients while we drink signature margaritas. (Every bar has their signature margarita, but that is another story.) It turns out that Key lime pie—unlike apple pie—is a uniquely American dessert.
Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) is not the same fruit as the Persian lime (Citrus latifolia) that is generally purchased in the grocery store. It’s much smaller and has a stronger flavor and aroma than the Persian hybrid. The history of this small citrus fruit goes back over a thousand years before Columbus brought it to the New World. It was commercially grown in Florida decades before Persian limes arrived in 1883.
Gail Borden was a man of historical note whose best-known quote is “Remember the Alamo.” However, he is also credited with the creation of sweetened condensed milk in 1856 and as a promoter of sanitary dairy conditions that became the founding principles of modern health codes.
Sylvester Graham was an early health reformer and the first person in the U.S. to lecture about healthy eating habits. He got a bit off track when he began associating sexual desires with diet, but the consequence was the creation of the Graham cracker in 1829 and so his eccentricity was forgiven.
Why did the chicken cross the road? Because he had the right of way. Eggs are another essential ingredient in Key lime pie and while you probably purchase them at the store this seems like an appropriate place to mention that chickens are as ubiquitous on the streets of Key West as pigeons are in New York City. Cock fighting and backyard gardens were once part of life on this tiny island and when the “sport” was banned, chickens became wild. Since all feral wildlife is protected, killing a chicken will result in a $500-$5,000 fine (I guess the amount of the fine depends whether the chicken ends up under the wheels of a car in a kitchen cooking pot). However, to the best of my knowledge, there’s no fine for collecting eggs and the origins of Key lime pie suggest feral bird nests were once plundered to create it.
Putting the limes, condensed milk, eggs, and Graham crackers together to create Key lime pie is generally accredited to an “Aunt Sally” in 1894 at the Curry Mansion, although the term “Key Lime Pie” didn’t appear in print until the 1930s. Dave’s research discovered that Aunt Sally was most likely Sarah Jane Lowe, wife of Charles Curry, but historian Tom Hambright and noted local chef Paul Menta believe a rudimentary version was first concocted by sponge fishermen in the mid-19th century.
There is as much debate regarding the appropriate topping as there is about the ingredients for the crust. One early recipe has whipped cream for a topping, while another uses meringue; purists insist it should have none. Regardless, there’s a tremendous amount of prestige on the line for restaurants serving “original” Key lime pie, so my critique regarding the “best” is like skating on thin ice in a place where ice is found only in cocktails and beer coolers.
Between us is a plate with a slice of Key lime pie and a shot of silver tequila. Dave encourages me to repeatedly puncture the top of the pie with a fork—being careful not to break the graham cracker crust—and then slowly pours the tequila over the pie, allowing it to soak into the holes. This is not a traditional topping, but turns out to be delicious.
Agave 308 also makes their own Key lime tart—just a small crust and filling—which is perhaps the closest I’ll come to experiencing an original Key lime pie. This is a tasty little treat that’s perfect with a cup of Cuban coffee, but it’s not the only pie in town.
Wearing a lime-green chef’s hat and coat—and usually carrying a pie—Kermit is easy to spot. He’s the king of Key lime in a town noted for putting this flavor in just about everything. His lime-green Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe and Kermit’s Kitchen Café is just the tip of a Key lime empire that is now centered in Orlando, but this Key West personality has managed to stay true to his roots and hasn’t succumbed to working behind a corporate desk.
With two assistants in the café kitchen they make 200-300 pies a day for local consumption, while the boutique features 150 or so Key lime products his company produces and ships. Kermit uses a meringue topping and graham-cracker crust, but what places his pies above the rest is the perfect balance of citrus bite with sweetness, plus the consistency of the filling. The recipe for Key lime pie is simple, but achieving that sour/sweet balance and desirable creamy melt-in-your-mouth filling is a culinary art.
Over the course of three days I tasted Key lime dips, Key lime Hollandaise sauce, Key lime mustard, Key lime ice cream, chocolate-covered Key lime pie on a stick, Key lime margaritas, and too many pies for my waistline. Some pies were tart, some too sweet, a couple had pudding-like consistencies, one was heavy custard, but none were bright green in color. Key limes are yellow when ripe and when used to make pie filling—or sauces–the result is a rather sickly pale yellow color, not green.
Almost every restaurant and bar offers Key lime pie, sometimes made in-house and otherwise purchased locally, and doing an a thorough review would requires weeks of diligent eating and drinking from Key West to Key Largo. Another place to start would be at home with The Key West Key Lime Cookbook that has recipes for 20 crusts, 20 fillings, 20 sauces, and 20 toppings plus hints, tips, trivia facts, the history of the pie’s origins.
The basic recipe for Key lime pie from The Key Lime Pie Cookbook:
1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup white sugar
6 tbls. Butter melted.
Combine crumbs and sugar in a bowl. Stir in butter until crumbs are evenly coated. Press and form in a 9-inch pie pan.
Refrigerated at least 30 minutes before filling.
One 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk (NOT evaporated milk)
4 egg yolks
½ cup Key-lime juice
Preheat oven to 350˚F
Combine condensed milk and eggs and mix well.
Slowly add Key-lime juice while continue mixing.
Pour into the prepared crust.
Bake at 350˚ for 8-10 minutes.
Cool, add desired topping (or not), and serve.