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A Slice of Heaven

A Texas historian shares a quest for a personal favorite—Key lime pie

Key lime pie is a scarce item on menus in the Key lime-less Big Bend, but I am fond of it. So I was delighted to discover during my wife, Dedie’s, and my recent winter ramble to Key West, Florida, that all 162 restaurants in Key West (a town of 27,000 people) serve Key lime pie.

It must be impossible to get a restaurant license in Key West without guaranteeing that Key lime pie will be on the menu. Even the Chinese restaurants serve Key lime pie. In addition, there are about a dozen hole-in-the-wall Key lime pie carryout places, most of them near the cruise ship dock on Mallory Square. That way, the several thousand cruise ship passengers who are disgorged every couple of days or so in the winter can munch on a slice as they trudge around buying T-shirts and glass octopi.

Key lime pie is a very simple combination of egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk, Key lime juice and pie crust, but there are hundreds of versions of it—most of them claiming to be the original. None of them are.

According to Tom Hambright, librarian of the Florida Keys Collection at the Monroe County Public Library and the go-to man on Key West history, the original Key lime pie was concocted in the late 19th century by Key West’s sponge fishermen. They created it from supplies they carried on their boats, which often hovered over the sponge grounds for several days at a time. The spongers (called “hookers” in Key West vernacular) would pour canned sweetened condensed milk over stale Cuban bread that had been tamped into the bottom of a coffee cup, add beaten egg yolks and squeeze in Key lime juice, which “cooked” the eggs in the same way that lime juice cooks ceviche. After sitting for five or six hours, the mixture was firmed up and considered delicious.

Key limes (Citrus aurantifolia swingle) are about the size of golf balls, and their skins are yellow with brown spots when they are ripe, in contrast to the larger, green Persian limes (Citrus latifolia) usually found in grocery stores. In the 1890s, boys sold them on the streets of Key West, chanting, “Key limes for sale fresh from the tree / A dozen for you and a nickel for me / Take ’em to the kitchen, put ’em in a pie / A little slice of heaven, my oh my.”

At some point in the 1890s, the Key lime pie spread from the sponge fishermen’s boats and into the mansion of a Key West ship chandler, William “Rich Bill” Curry, who would become Florida’s first millionaire. Tradition, in the form of a printed recipe distributed by the Curry Mansion Inn, credits this transition to a woman known only as Aunt Sally, who cooked for the Curry family. David L. Sloan, a Key West chef and culinary historian who has written the definitive book on Key lime pies, The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook, has identified Aunt Sally as Sarah Jane Lowe, who was married to William Curry’s son, Charles.

Here is Lowe’s recipe, dated 1894: “Ingredients: 4 eggs separated, ¼ cup key lime juice, 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk, 1/3 cup sugar, pinch of cream of tartar, one eight-inch Graham cracker crust. Beat egg yolks until light and thick. Blend in lime juice, then milk, stirring until mixture thickens. Pour mixture into pie shell. Beat egg whites with cream of tartar until stiff. Gradually beat in sugar until glossy peaks form. Spread egg whites over surface of pie to edge of crust. Bake in 350-degree oven until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Chill before serving.”

Lowe’s recipe contained several improvements over the sponge fishermen’s. First, it called for baking the pie in an oven. There are still traditionalists who argue that true Key lime pie is unbaked, but fears of salmonella (and of losing a restaurant license) have meant that most Key lime pies served in restaurants have been in an oven.

Another of Lowe’s innovations was the substitution of graham crackers for stale Cuban bread for the crust, although Key West now is divided into two factions on this matter: graham cracker crusters and pastry crusters. Sloan’s book gives recipes for both, as well as for crusts incorporating s’mores, peanut butter, Kool-Aid, Oreo cookies, pretzels, pecans, chile pequins, thin mint cookies, vanilla wafers, coffee, rum and bacon.

Lowe’s third innovation was to top the pie with meringue made from the egg whites. As with the crusts, there are two topping factions: the meringuers and the whipped creamers. The meringuers accuse the whipped creamers of taking the easy way out because it requires patience and skill to create a towering 6-inch meringue above a 2-inch pie. The whipped creamers retort that their toppings are more accommodating to so-called secret ingredients, such as Tabasco, raspberries, rum, eggnog, agave nectar and Kahlúa.

I cannot say that I have sampled the Key lime pie in all of Key West’s 162 restaurants, but I will say that my favorite is the one served at the Conch Flyer, the restaurant at Key West’s airport. Try that on the last day of your visit and you will not be disappointed.

Historian Lonn Taylor lives in Fort Davis. Reach him at [email protected].