What’s the deal with key lime pie??
Today, we’re going to be talking about key lime pie, but as y’all know, we’re not just going to be talking about key lime pie.
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Part 1: Introduction
I think a natural starting place for talking about food is when and where you first tried it, and whenever I think about first contacts with different foods, I alway think about the beautiful passage in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential where he describes trying oysters for the very first time on a trip to France with his family. He talked a bit about how he had been annoying his parents with his picky eating throughout the trip until this moment when everything changed. In the passage, he describes how he and his family were on a boat with the man who lived next to them, Monsieur Saint-Jour. Along the way, they had eaten all they brought and he was still feeling hungry. During the trip, Monsieur Saint-Jour had raked up some oysters and asked if anyone wanted to try as he was shucking them. Bourdain jumped at the opportunity to try it, despite his family’s hesitation about the offering. From there, he writes:
“I took it in my hand, tilted the shell back into my mouth as instructed by the now beaming Monsieur Saint-Jour and with one bite and a slurp, wolfed it down. It tasted of seawater…of brine and flesh…and somehow…of the future. Everything was different now. Everything. I’d not only survived–I’d enjoyed. This, I knew, was the magic of which I had until now been only dimly and spitefully aware. I was hooked. My parents’ shudders, my little brother’s expression of unrestrained revulsion and amazement only reinforced the sense that I had, somehow, become a man. I had had an adventure, tasted forbidden fruit and everything that followed in my life–the food, the long and often stupid and self-destructive chase for the next thing, whether it was drugs or sex or some other new sensation–would all stem from this moment. I’d learned something. Viscerally, instinctively, spiritually–even in some small, precursive way, sexually–and there was no turning back. The genie was out of the bottle. My life as a cook, and as a chef, had begun. Food had power.”
Like Bourdain, food is one of the very first loves of my life and there are many foods that have changed my worldview entirely upon my first experience with them. Unfortunately, though, I don’t remember the first time I tried key lime pie. I don’t even remember the first time I heard the phrase “key lime pie.” But I love it. I truly do. And I wish I could remember the first blast of tart citrus flavor and smooth chilled custard because I imagine it felt similar to what Bourdain’s describing here…like an adventure.
Growing up in Florida, especially South Florida, key lime pie is kind of an unrelenting fact of life. You can get it at every single Publix, you can order it at most restaurants, and if you really want to do something good for yourself, you can easily drive down to the Florida Keys and have a different slice of key lime pie on every block. You can eat it on a plate with a fork and knife or you can get it frozen on a stick and dipped in dark Belgian chocolate for a couple cents more. Every person in my life who cooks and enjoys cooking has a key lime pie recipe they swear by, and almost every born and bred Floridian I know has an opinion on who serves the best key lime pie. For me, that’s got to be Terry’s classic key lime pies from Bob Roth’s New River Groves and the chocolate dipped key lime pie on a stick from Kermit’s in Key West.
Brother, you’re from Connecticut, so you probably do have a memory of when you first tried key lime pie. What do you remember about it?
To me, key lime pie is magical for a few reasons, but I’ll just say the two basic ones right now. First, because of how widely the respect and lore of key lime pie is disseminated throughout Florida and most of the continental U.S. And second, it’s such a common and simple dessert and yet, it feels like it comes from another place entirely. The combination of textures and flavors that reign in a good key lime pie feels like something someone came up with for a dream sequence featuring the most glorious dinner party in a movie or television show. But it doesn’t. It comes from right here. In my metaphorical backyard in South Florida.
I think that’s why it was so shocking that just one short week ago, the Florida legislature voted to make strawberry shortcake the official state dessert of Florida. Strawberry shortcake? When I heard the news, I was scratching my head to try to figure out how this happened. I don’t think you need to know much about strawberry shortcake to infer that it’s not from Florida. Short cake is a European invention dating back to Ancient Rome. Wild strawberries, the ones that we eventually began cultivating here in the U.S., ARE native to the Eastern U.S. but I didn’t find anything specifically linking their endemism to Florida. Strawberry shortcake first appeared on the scene in the U.S. in 1847 in Pennsylvania. In Florida, strawberry shortcake is mostly a big thing in one place: Plant City. A city of 37,000 in a state of over 20 million. Plant City hosts the Florida Strawberry Festival every year and hundreds of thousands of people go to it. Strawberries are also a billion dollar a year business for Florida. (For the record, the state of Florida makes between 4 and 6 times that on citrus every year.) And still, in my almost 34 years of living in this state, I cannot tell you a single time I’ve seen strawberry shortcake on a single menu down here. Now, you know I couldn’t care less about borders or the state or the government but this news, honestly, shook my spirit up a bit.
Part 2: Key Lime Pie Origins
Like so many things in the world, the origins of key lime pie are—apparently–-a little nebulous. Before I get to the invention of the pie, I think I should just talk a little bit about what’s in it. Key lime pie is, like I said earlier, extraordinarily simple. All you need to make them are graham crackers, butter, key lime pie juice, a can of sweetened condensed milk, a few egg yolks, and the ingredients for your desired topping. The appropriate topping for a key lime pie is hotly debated. Some people prefer a meringue topping made of sugar and whipped egg whites, and others prefer a whipping cream topping made of sugar and heavy cream. I actually did some research via my social media–completely legit data practices, obviously–to see which side of the debate my friends and followers fall on. It was barely a competition…77% of the people who responded said whipped cream is the best topping. And sorry not sorry to the ones who disagree but they’re right. Whipped cream not only tastes better than meringue in this context but the textures are a perfect match. Leave the meringue to those lemon pies people got in other states.
Getting back to the origins, we have to start from the beginning…
Key limes are not native to Florida. Or anywhere on this side of the world. They’re native to Malaysia, actually, and they got to Florida (and the Caribbean) via Spanish colonization at some point in the 1500s. After their initial introduction, key limes were grown on plantations all over South Florida and the Florida Keys until the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 wiped out most of the key lime plantations. As a result of the destruction caused by the hurricane, many plantation owners and farmers replanted their land with Persian limes, and key limes became a little more sparse overall. That’s why sometimes, you’ll find that pies labeled “key lime” actually use Persian limes or they use key limes from Mexico, which people often say are much far less superior because the specific chemistry of the soil in Florida produces a key lime that is both tart and slightly sweet. Originally and in the best ones today, it was and is Florida key lime all the way despite the fact that they were and are difficult to get. In the research I did, I also asked people about this distinction. I found that many people didn’t even know there’s a difference between the pies made with key lime and the ones made with Persian limes! About 46% of the people who responded didn’t know they were being fooled all this time and said they couldn’t tell the difference between pies made with real key limes and those made with Persian limes. The other 54% who did know and could taste the difference were, by and large with the exception of you brother, native Floridians.
The invention of the actual pie is a little harder to track and much more controversial. The origin story that is widely accepted in Florida is two-pronged. It began with sponge fisherman down here in the mid-1800s. According to two sources I found, the sponge fisherman would keep key limes and other citrus on board to help ward off scurvy. They’d mix the juice of the citrus with sweetened condensed milk and some eggs from wild birds or sea turtles then pour it over old bread and let it set in the sun for a bit before eating it. News of their creation obviously made it back, eventually, to the women and families waiting for them at port, and recipes for the pie began circulating amongst the working class people of the Keys in particular. By the end of the 1800s, the pie had achieved some popularity but it wasn’t until Sarah Jane Lowe Curry known as Aunt Sally, the daughter-in-law of Florida’s first millionaire, “elevated” the pie both in form and in the class of people enjoying it.
From there, it supposedly kind of took off, but unfortunately, the oldest written recipes for the pie that historians can find were written in the late 1930s, which is why these humble origins are disputed. According to a book called BraveTart written by well-known pastry chef Stella Parks, the actual oldest recorded recipe for something resembling key lime pie was written in 1931 in New York City by the Borden condensed milk company. Theirs was called the Magic Lemon Cream Pie and basically had the same ingredients with the exception of the choice of citrus fruit. However, as everyone’s probably learning in this episode, Floridians take this shit seriously so famous Florida Keys historian David L. Sloan made it a mission to prove that Aunt Sally was not only real but that she had access to condensed milk at the time it’s claimed she created the pie. He ended up discovering historical documents that prove both AND he found some documented proof that the 1931 recipe for the Magic Lemon Cream Pie most likely came from a contest run by Borden during that time and it’s possible they swapped the key limes for lemons, which–obviously–were much easier to find.
Part 3: Key Lime Pie as official state pie
So, I hadn’t looked into this official state dessert business much until I started doing the research for this episode, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the fight to make key lime pie the official state dessert actually began with Terry and Bob Roth! I found a Sun Sentinel article from April 21, 1988–9 days before my actual BIRTHDAY– called MAKE WAY OJ - KEY LIME PIE’S HERE. In the article, it discusses how Terry Roth was inspired to push to make key lime pie Florida’s state dessert after she watched an episode of Jeopardy where one of the categories was state bugs. Terry told the writer, "The other night I was watching Jeopardy on TV, and state bugs came up as one of the categories. I got hysterical! So far, no one else has an official state dessert. With all of the adverse publicity about Florida lately, this would give us a chance to be first in something that's positive."
Terry and Bob brought this idea to the district representative for the city of Plantation–along with some of Terry’s pie for him to try–and he agreed that it should be Florida’s official dessert. He wrote a bill and brought it to the Florida House of Representatives where it kind of died because representatives from North Florida thought pecan pie was more reflective of Florida’s history. Then, in 1994, the Florida legislature designated key lime pie as an important symbol of Florida and in 2006, it became the official state pie.
So, contrary to what I believed before doing this, key lime pie was never the official state dessert. It was the official state pie and an official symbol of the state of Florida. And now we have both: an official dessert and an official pie.
Part 4: Does this fucking matter??
That brings us to our last part. At the end point of my research, I basically started wondering like…does this fucking matter? As I was doing this research, I was thinking about the ending of that Bourdain passage and what Terry Roth said a lot.
If what Bourdain said is true–that food really does have power (and I believe that he’s right)–then you know what, yeah, it does matter. Thinking about it, key lime pie is such a novel creation. It’s amazing how it came to be. I’m obviously inclined to believe the original origin story, mostly because I’m tired of New York trying to take credit for every good thing, but also because it seems entirely plausible to me that that’s how it came together. Florida in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a (literally) wild and weird ass place. A crew of sponge fisherman would be comprised of men from many different places in the U.S., it would be indigenous men, and men from the Caribbean and South America. We’re talking about a mixture of cultures and customs, beliefs and traditions, culinary preferences, etc. And all of that came together to produce a product that is so quintessentially Florida. Technically, yes, other custard pies exist but I’m not sure any of them are as transportative and pleasing as key lime pie. It’s INTERESTING, it’s refreshing, it’s–in a dictionary definition sense–extremely queer. I’ve never tasted anything like it outside of it, and I don’t think I ever will.
As Terry pointed out in the article from 1988, she got the idea to get key lime pie named the official dessert of Florida so that there would finally be some good news coming out of here for once. Florida in the 1980s and Florida now is a space of turmoil and unruliness. Bad governance and weird, fucked up politics and systemic racism reign interminably. It’s gaudy, it’s gauche, it’s loud as fuck and it likes to flaunt the worst parts of itself for everyone to see. It has a deep, long history of indigeneity, a horrifying history of colonialism, a rich queer history, and also, a surprising history of people of all backgrounds and cultures coming together to resist the ruling cultural beliefs of certain times. Florida is an absolute freak show. But it’s a beautiful space, too–it’s quite literally paradise. People come here to get away from it all, to escape the fast-paced, unfriendly bullshit of their concrete suck cities, to find a new way of being, to celebrate their lives, to really LIVE them. That’s the story of my families’ beginnings here, that’s your story brother, and it’s a story that’s still being written every single day. No matter how much being here hurts me sometimes, no matter how much my existence here threatens all of those shitty politics I mentioned and in turn threatens my very life, no matter how much the ruling classes and parties of this place yell that they don’t want me or people like me here–it’s a history that, out of all the possible histories available to me in the current moment, I feel grateful to be part of because it’s afforded me a way of thinking about the world that I know I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Growing up and staying here has made me a stronger person, a more skilled community organizer, a more steadfast communist, a better teacher, and, I think, has helped engender in me a true and persistent sense of wonder about all the worlds around me.
In a time when the bad actors and weak ass motherfuckers we call our state representatives and leaders are trying their very best to suppress and obscure the diverse cultural and queer history of this place and to erase and eradicate the very people who made and make this land livable and wonderful every single day, I do think it’s important to hold onto the things that make us US. In a sense, this recent attention on the bright, shiny newness of the strawberry shortcake is representative of what these people are trying to do with this state in general. Through their recent legislation on what teachers can discuss in classrooms, on what police officers and civilians can do in times of political rebellion, on how corporations can treat the land and people of the cities where they set up shop, and on what prosecutors can do to get death row inmates executed more expeditiously, it’s clear to me that the leaders of this state are trying more than ever to quash that surreal and tumultuous and remarkable history in order to create a haven of political, personal, and financial conservatism that is not only rapidly destroying the land we live on but is also going to make so many of our lives entirely unlivable.
So, sure, maybe in the grand scheme of it all, no one has to give a fuck about whether or not key lime pie is the actual state dessert of Florida because the state of Florida shouldn’t technically exist, but if it’s going to–and we know it’s going to–then I think, at the very least, key lime pie’s position shouldn’t be usurped by some bullshit ass non-Florida dessert that some white guy state representatives from some other non-Florida place decided was better because they want so badly to make this place theirs and theirs alone.