Key West and the Florida Keys is one of the most laid-back spots on the planet, a famously informal island chain that swings westward from the southern tip of mainland Florida.
The flip-flop-clad Florida Keys residents are equally as easy-going and unofficial. The locals sincerely welcome the 2 million annual visitors who come seeking — and finding — warm relief from the clench of winter. But more than that, a Florida Keys and Key West vacation offers exciting water sport adventures, stunning sunsets, colorful people and cultural events, tropical drinks, top-notch cuisine and one signature dessert.
Key lime pie is as synonymous with the Florida Keys as cheesesteaks are with Philadelphia, and pizza is with New York City.
The refreshingly tart dessert comes in countless varieties; with each Florida Keys restaurant and home chef choosing his or her own path when it comes to crust, consistency, tartness and the presence or absence of a sky-high layer of meringue.
With their pie, as with their overall lifestyle, the Florida Keys embrace and encourage originality, which leads to a diversity that offers something for everyone’s palate.
Casa Marina Key West Waldorf-Astoria captures perfectly the classic, iconic taste of Key lime pie, while Blue Heaven restaurant adds that gravity-defying meringue layer. Baker’s Cay, a new resort in Key Largo, fancies it up a bit with a decadent crust made from pecans and white chocolate to even out the zesty lime flavor. The pie is topped with a sweet guava glaze.
A Key West vacation is incomplete without a visit to Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, where proprietor Kermit Carpenter greets visitors in a striking green chef’s outfit. His pies are traditional favorites that utilize fresh key lime juice and a graham cracker crust. But Carpenter is perhaps best known for his more portable invention: a frozen slice of key lime pie dipped in dark chocolate and served on a stick.
And the Key West Key Lime Pie Co. has won national awards for its perfect ratio of filling to graham cracker crust, both of which are made fresh daily. The slice is with the wait in the line that often forms in the Greene Street shop.
Other eateries serve the iconic pie with a touch of mango mixed with the lime flavor, or with the fluffier consistency of cheesecake. While the graham cracker crust is usually a mainstay, some places have served Key lime pie with a saltine cracker crust that offers a good mix of sweet and salty.
That amount of variety makes it difficult to answer the question of “Where to get the best Key lime pie?” but the pie’s history sparks in the Keys’ laid-back locals a fierce sense of pride in the islands’ iconic dessert and protection of their claim to it.
So when the New York Times bestselling author of a 2017 cookbook questioned the origin of the Key lime pie, and more importantly, the authenticity of the Florida Keys’ claim to the pie that shares its name with the island chain, well, them’s fightin’ words. That’s what happened in 2018, when cookbook author Stella Parks wrote in her 2017 cookbook “Bravetart” that the earliest recipe for Key lime pie she could find came from 1931 and originated in the Borden’s Dairy test kitchens in New York City, of all places.
Want to touch a nerve in Key West and the Florida Keys? Tell the world — and the Florida Keys — that the pie they’ve claimed and cherished for generations didn’t originate with their island ancestors, but with corporate giants in New York City. Parks did just that, and Key lime pie turned from dessert to debate in 2018. Parks wrote, “In the late 1860s, a millionaire by the name of William Curry lived with his wife and children on Caroline Street in Key West. According to tradition, the whole island swooned over a pie made by their family cook, [Aunt Sally], an unusual concoction using canned milk and limes. From the Chicago Tribune to epicurious.com, food writers have worked this tiny tidbit into a full-blown history lesson without a single historical document to support it.”
That’s when David Sloan, Key West author, entrepreneur and founder of the island’s Key Lime Festival, took umbrage at the cookbook’s accusation and implication.
Sloan enlisted the help of his father, Todd Sloan, an accomplished genealogy researcher, and set out to prove that Key lime pie had existed in Key West prior to the 1931 Borden’s Milk-sponsored recipe contest in New York City.
“Ms. Parks goes on to say ‘nothing in the literature surrounding Key lime pie suggests a connection to Curry at all,’” Sloan said. “Not true. In addition to the William Curry & Sons ship’s chandlery ordering sweetened condensed milk earlier than the 1930s, in my 2013 ‘Key West Key Lime Cookbook,’ I identify Aunt Sally as Sarah Jane Lowe Curry. My dad let me know that Sally was a nickname for Sarah back then and she was an aunt to William Curry’s 14 grandchildren.
“So we’ve found an Aunt Sally connected to the Curry Mansion who was married to a guy who sold one of the main ingredients in Key lime pie. This isn’t the kind of connection you stumble upon without research. “Finally, Parks claims that Borden’s Magic Lemon Cream Pie became a phenomenon in 1931. But she never mentions the Borden’s contest they held that same year? She doesn’t mention that the company paid $25 for accepted recipes. Nor does she mention the possibility that someone could very likely have submitted a Key lime pie recipe to the contest that Borden’s then adapted into their lemon pie recipe to make it more accessible to everyone,” Sloan said.
“Sing on about Borden, Stella. We have proof from 1926 that you are wrong.”
While the 2019 debate made headlines throughout Florida and beyond, both Sloan and Parks were able to keep things in perspective throughout the debate.
“Let’s keep in mind, we’re talking about pie, and pie should always make people happy,” Sloan said.
In the end, Parks and Sloan both agreed to disagree for now. And both wholeheartedly agreed that they’d happily join the other to, what else? Enjoy a slice of Key lime pie — so all can continue to enjoy a “peace of the pie.”