The History of Key Lime Pie

I never heard of Key lime pie before moving as a teen in the 90s from Connecticut to Florida. My first taste was from the bakery at Publix which is a grocery chain that is super popular here in Florida, Georgia and other southern states. Being a fan of citrus fruits combined with desserts (hello lemon bars and lemon meringue pie), I knew me and this pie was going to be fast friends. The Publix key lime pie seemed to be a great introduction to the world of Key lime pie (barring a piece from the actually Keys) as it does have a bit of a cult following. Even Southern Living wrote a post about it.

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Who and where was Key Lime Pie created?

Before we talk about the Key Lime pie as a whole, we first need to discuss two of the ingredients – sweetened condensed milk and the key limes themselves. First, sweetened condensed milk was invented in 1856 by Gail Borden. This was incredibly helpful to the Florida Keys because cows, therefore fresh dairy, were hard to come by due to the area’s relative isolation. Also, food poisoning and other illnesses related to the lack of refrigeration in the warm climate made the use of canned condensed milk essential to their way of life.

Second, the Key Lime trees came to the Keys by way of Christopher Columbus. It is thought that Columbus brought the fruit with him on his second voyage in 1493 with the first trees being planted in Haiti. They then in turn came to Florida by way of the Haitians and Bahamians who migrated in the early 1800s. So because of these two ingredients entering the lives of the Floridians in Key West, the famous pie came into existence somewhere around the 1890s. In a 1978 newspaper article, librarian and local historian, Betty Bruce, basically said that there have been many legends dreamed up about the pie but the real truth of the matter is that there is no documented history. Most likely it was an inventive cook that just used what they had on hand.

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What ingredients are in Key Lime Pie?

The pie is a simple pie made with eggs, key lime juice, and sweetened condensed milk poured into a pie crust. Though with this easy pie there are some hard and fast rules that need to apply to ALL key lime pies in the eyes of a purist Key West native and then there are some that have some wiggle room.

Let’s talk about the absolute rules first:

1. Must contain Key lime juice NEVER Persian lime variety.

2. Must use sweetened condensed milk.

3. Never tint the filling green with food coloring as it should be a pale yellow. It gets this color not from the juice but instead the egg yolks in the pie.

Now for the looser rules:

1. Though the original crust used was a flaky pastry crust it now is acceptable to use a graham cracker crust.

2. You can top your pie either with meringue or whipped cream.

3. Fresh squeezed is preferred but using a bottled key lime juice is okay.

4. Original recipes did not bake this pie (except if topping it with meringue). Some now will bake it for 10 to 15 minutes while others choose to keep the original spirit alive. There are also some versions that will freeze the pie as well.

Key limes are quite different from their Persian cousin. They are much smaller coming in at about the size of a golf ball. Also, they are a yellowish-green color with very thin skin versus the bright green color and thicker skin of other varieties of lime. Their delicate skin is the reason why you don’t see the fruit in produce sections around the country very often as they are deemed too fragile and therefore too costly to ship and store in trucks.

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When was Key Lime Pie popular?

In the Keys and then eventually all of Florida, the pie has always been popular. The rest of the country seemed to not know this pie existed until sometime in the early to mid 20th century. Writer Jeanne Voltz in a 1953 article for the Miami Herald says that “Key lime pie is as much part of South Florida’s fame as warm sunshine and beaches” She jokes that “no tourist dares go away without sampling this most famous of Florida dishes”. Another 1954 article in the Tampa Bay Times remarked that they get so many request for a Key lime pie recipe and it is not surprising because “there is nothing equal to Key lime pie”. This was definitely a sentiment shared by other articles in Florida newspapers. Many commented that this was by far their most asked for recipe by tourists and locals. One 1949 article says the reason is because the recipe is “quick and easy and never fails to please”.

Today Key lime pie is still a huge tourist draw where you can find many variations such as frozen Key Lime pie on a stick usually dipped in chocolate, deep-fried key lime pie, milkshakes, and martinis. In a 1978 newspaper article, it was said that almost 70% of all visitors to Key West have at least one piece of key lime pie according to the Chamber of Commerce. The thing that surprises them the most? The color is pale yellow and not bright green.

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Why should I make Key Lime Pie?

My favorite thing about Key lime pie is that is kind of a choose your own adventure recipe. Starting with the crust you can go either pastry or graham cracker both are acceptable in the canon of this pie. Then the amount of eggs really doesn’t matter. In the past they used what they had on hand. So if their recipe used four egg yolks and they only had two then that is what was used. It is super flexible. Lastly are you a meringue lover or would you rather top it with whipped cream? Both is great and adds to the pie in different ways. After that you can totally get adventurous. I have seen many flavor mash ups with it be mango, coconut or even chocolate Key lime pies. Though if you absolutely hate all things lime then just skip this recipe!

Any more fun facts about Key Lime Pie?

  • In 1965, Florida almost passed a Key lime law. Florida statesman B.C. Papy Jr. tried to get state legislature passed to prohibit using other limes beside the key lime in the famed pie.
  • Most key limes used, even in Florida, hail from Haiti. This is because in 1926 a Category 4 hurricane destroyed the key lime groves. Instead, they were replaced with the more durable Tahiti limes, part of the Persian lime family, which had been growing in Florida since 1883.
  • The Key lime is known as a dooryard fruit because it grows wild in many people’s backyards in the Keys.
  • This is the official state pie of Florida though many did want the pecan pie instead.
  • Unless you live in Florida, especially Key West, or have visited Florida and again especially the Keys, you most likely have not had an authentic Key lime pie. Many pies and desserts which say that they use Key lime substitute the Persian variety instead.
  • Fun fact for anyone who knows what a Publix is; the cult classic Key lime pie as been sold in the stores since 1957.

How do you make Key Lime Pie?
The following recipe will be for the graham cracker crust/whipped topping Key Lime pie. It is my personal favorite version. Now I am not a purist and understand that in other parts finding Key Lime juice might be hard. Even I had trouble sourcing a bottle for this post due to it not being in stock in multiple stores and I live in Florida. You can substitute regular lime juice and it will still make a perfectly good pie.

Key Lime Pie

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

The favorite Key West pie.

Ingredients

    • 9 graham crackers (1/3 of a box)
    • 5 tablespoons butter, melted
    • 1/4 cup of sugar
    • 4 egg yolks
    • 1 15 oz can sweetened condensed milk
    • 1/2 cup Key Lime juice (or regular lime juice I am not here to judge!)
    • 1 cup of heavy cream
    • 2 tablespoons confectioners sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350.
  2. Finely crush the graham cracker by using a food processor or placing in a ziploc bag and crushing them with a rolling pin.
  3. Mix them in a bowl with the sugar and the melted butter.
  4. In a 9 inch pie dish, press the crumb mixture firmly on the bottom then up the sides.
  5. Bake for 8 minutes. Set aside crust and leave the oven on at 350.
  6. In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks with a hand mixer until thickened. Then add the sweetened condensed milk and Key Lime juice and mix until smooth.
  7. Pour the mixture in the pie crust and back for ten minutes.
  8. Let cool slightly at room temperature and then place in fridge to chill for a couple of hours.
  9. Before serving whip the heavy cream and confectioners sugar together it creates soft peaks.
  10. Top the pie with the whipped cream and serve!


Sources:

Anderson, Jean. The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century. Random House: New York, 1997.

Gilbar, Steven. Chicken A La King & The Buffalo Wing. Writer’s Digest Books: Ohio, 2008.

“Key Lime Pie Big Attraction At Resort”. The Spokesman Review. Feb. 9, 1978.

“Key Lime Pie is Popular Florida Fan”. The Miami Herald. November 13, 1949.

“Key Lime Pie’s Top Favorite”. The Miami News. December 2, 1951.

Mariani, John. The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink. Bloomsbury: New York, 2011.

Merriman, Woodene. “Popular Pie of Key West a Newcomer.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 25, 1984.

Rowell, Diane P. “Two Ask Recipes for Key Lime Pie”. Tampa Bay Times. April 16, 1954.

Stern, Jane and Stern, Michael. The Lexicon of Real American Food. Lyons Press: Connecticut, 2011.

Stuart, Caroline and Voltz, Jeanne. The Florida Cookbook: From Gulf Coast Gumbo to Key Lime Pie. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Sweet, Dorothy. “Lime, Strawberry Desserts are Treats for Florida Tourists, Home Folks, Too”. The Miami Herald. February 1, 1951.

Voltz, Jeanne. “Key Lime Pie Has an Exciting New Wardrobe of Tempting Variations”. The Miami Herald. August 2, 1953.

Westmoreland, Susan. Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook. Hearst Books: New York, 2004.

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