In the culinary realm of South Florida, the Key lime holds a special spot in our collective sun-baked hearts. Smaller and rounder than its more common cousin, the Persian lime, Key limes walk the line between green and yellow in outer appearance, while the thinner skin makes the citrus fruit more aromatic and more tart. Yet, this hearty little fruit has become big business down here in the land of sunshine, most notably in the official state dessert, Key lime pie.
The Key lime pie, at its core, is utilitarian – a simple mix of Key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk and eggs. But who was the first brave soul to mix these three things together? As most things concocted more than a century ago, its origins are shrouded in mystery, which is why we turned to Monroe County historian Tom Hambright, probably the most learned person in Key West history alive.
“It’s all legend,” says Hambright from his Key West library office, “but supposedly, Aunt Sally came up with the Key Lime pie. Now where did she come up with it, no one is quite sure. But I have a theory…”
First, a little background. Aunt Sally, it is largely agreed upon, was a cook for William Curry (left), “Florida’s first homegrown millionaire,” adds Hambright. Curry came to Key West by way of Green Turtle Kay in the Bahamas in the 1820s at the age of nine, making his fortune as a wrecker – big, and nefarious, business in those days – a ship chandler, and owner of the island’s largest general store. “He was a regular conglomerate of the day,” says Hambright, “a big money man. He had the largest fleet of wrecking ships, the only clipper ship built in Florida, and was not only the provisioner for the ships, but sold everything for town – he had an ice plant, had one of the first electric plants, ship repair ways…”
In other words, Curry was a real Key West mover and shaker. And as a man who knew how to get things, he was the guy one turned to for the newest island-living luxury item of the day: sweetened condensed milk.
In those days, before Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad bridged the Keys archipelago, ships were the sole means of transportation. And with the islands lacking enough acreage for large livestock, milk simply was not available in Key West – it would spoil en route. However, with the invention of canned, sweetened condensed milk in 1853 by Gail Borden Jr., the Keys found a new dairy substitute for their lack of cattle. Curry brought in cases of the stuff in the late 1850s, not only supplying ships coming to Key West as a port-of-call, but also his own kitchen, where it was used in cream sauces and, eventually, Key lime pie. Which is where Aunt Sally steps in.
Built by William Curry’s son, Milton, the Curry Mansion was the supposed home of the Key lime pie, dating back to the 1860s when Aunt Sally was employed as a cook. Construction of the mansion was not fully completed until 1899, three years after William’s death.
Photo courtesy of Monroe County Library Collection
There is no way to verify the legend of Aunt Sally; the only name bandied about is Aunt Sally, no last name, meaning Clerk of the Court records are a nonstarter. And she was not listed in Curry’s household in the census, so all that is known is that she worked for the Curry’s, possibly at the Curry Mansion – now the Curry Mansion Inn, a bed and breakfast on Caroline Street (right) – which was built by Curry’s son, Milton, in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was here that the Key lime pie was supposedly created. However, Hambright has other notions.
“A theory that some of us have, that I have, was that Aunt Sally was African, as were a lot of the spongers that worked out of here. They would be out on long voyages, a month or two at a time, living on the boat and so forth,” says Hambright. These sponging vessels were well provisioned with Key lime juice, canned sweetened condensed milk, and eggs – “there were a lot of eggs out there…bird eggs at different times of the year, and turtle eggs, so they had all the ingredients. They could have put them together for a pudding, and they could have told Aunt Sally, ‘Hey, this is pretty good.’”
Sponging was a bustling industry in Key West in the mid-1800s, equating to nearly $750,000 annually at its height. The Key West Sponge Exchange at the lower end of Elizabeth Street was its once bustling hub.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
One of the great advantages of the Key lime pie is that there is no need to cook it. The acidity of the Key lime juice, when mixed with eggs, causes a reaction called thickening, essentially cooking the eggs while setting for a custard-like consistency. For obvious reasons, this would have made for the perfect boat food – nothing could be more devastating to a wooden ship then a small flame. And as with most things worth passing on, the recipe made its way to land where it took hold.
“It became a sort of tradition, and this is true in a lot of places in the South, that the ladies of the house would cook every meal except Sunday night, when they would have a cold-fried chicken and a Key lime pie,” said Hambright.
As for historical record, the first written reference to Key lime pie came from promotional material stemming from The Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, touting the “world-famous Key lime pie” in an American Guide Series pamphlet. Interestingly, a Key West woman’s club cookbook dating to 1920 made no mention of it, largely because everyone knew how to make it. “It was so common that no one put a recipe in because it was so simple,” laughs Hambright.
One of the watercolor post cards produced by the WPA in the 1930s and ’40s, promoting travel destinations around the country. The American Guide Series of Florida – Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State (1939) – and Key West – A Guide to Key West (1941) – helped put Florida on the map as a tourist destination.
Courtesy of the DeWolfe and Wood Collection in the Otto Hirzel Scrapbook.
So where does this leave us? A tradition steeped in historical mystery, just as any Conch would have it. Now that you know its heritage, it’s time to create an authentic Key lime pie at home, along with a few additional key lime-infused recipes.
For recipes and advice on choosing the best Key limes, head to page 2 >>
Flavor Profile and History: The Key Lime
Also known as the Yucatan lime, the Key lime is much smaller and rounder than its Persian cousin, with a thinner, yellowish skin. More tart and aromatic, the juice alone has considerable bite. Season runs May through August, though the fruit can be found year round. When choosing Key limes, look for brightly colored, smooth-skinned ones that are a bit heavy for their size – they have more juice.
Once a backyard staple of the Keys, growing from breaks in limestone and rocky outcroppings, commercialized Key lime orchards are all but a distant memory in the Keys – property on the archipelago is simply to pricey for any large-scale orchard, something that dates back well into the 1930s.
“What really wiped the Key limes out were Persian limes,” says Tom Hambright, Monroe County historian and expert on the story of the Key lime. He gives some credence to the theory that hurricanes in the 1920s and 1930s devastated some commercial plantings, but not much. Key limes can be finicky, with production levels fluctuating and their not taking well to shipment, let alone being smaller in size than Persian limes. “It was a combination of things that forced them out,” says Hambright, “though there are still some commercial operations in Homestead growing them.”
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