A cookbook author’s claim that Key lime pie was invented by a milk company to sell its products — and not in the Florida Keys — is striking a sour note in Key West.
Key lime pie — that cool, creamy concoction of Key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk and meringue piled on thick above a graham cracker crust — is a Key West staple at touristy restaurants and shops that draw visitors by the droves.
It’s also the state pie of Florida.
Could Key lime pie have originated in New York City by the Borden company as a marketing ploy to sell more condensed milk?
Blasphemy, say local chefs.
But a Lexington, Kentucky-based pastry chef says she easily debunked a Keys myth by doing a little digging.
On Saturday morning, David Sloan, who wrote “The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook” (Phantom Press), put out a plea on Facebook asking for help in proving the long-held local assumption that the pie has its roots in Key West.
“A new cookbook that is getting a lot of attention claims Key lime pie was first created in a Borden test kitchen on Madison Avenue in New York in 1931, not in Key West,” Sloan wrote. “I’d love help from any multi-generational residents to dig up old written recipes for lime pie using lime, eggs and condensed milk. Going to compile all of our evidence and make it clear that Key lime pie really is from the Keys.”
The cookbook Sloan wants to refute is “BraveTart,” an acclaimed work by pastry chef Stella Parks, who won the 2018 James Beard Award for a book in the Baking and Desserts category. She says the Key lime pie is simply a variation of Borden’s Magic Lemon Cream Pie recipe published in 1931.
“As it turns out, lime meringue pie may be native to Key West but Key lime was born on Madison Avenue,” writes Parks.
Sloan, and many locals, say the cook for millionaire William Curry — known only as “Aunt Sally” — dreamed up the Key lime pie we know today as a treat for her boss, who built his home in Key West in 1869. Sloan says a pie recipe found in Curry’s pantry predates Borden’s work.
“We now have reason to believe that she was Sarah Jane Lowe, wife of William’s oldest son Charles,” reads the website for Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion Inn, 511 Caroline St., Key West.
But documenting the Aunt Sally theory is another problem.
Sloan says the earliest recipe he could find in the local library is from 1939. He didn’t return messages for comment.
Parks said Tuesday she would welcome any proof that the pie originated in the Keys. But she says she scoured vintage cookbooks, newspapers and advertisements and could find no printed record that bakers in Florida used canned milk to make a no-cook lime pie prior to Borden’s 1931 introduction of a recipe for Magic Lemon Pie on the national stage.
“Going forward, it’s no surprise that Florida cooks would improve upon the recipe by using local Key limes,” Parks said Tuesday in an email. “If anyone has found concrete evidence that canned milk was used in a no-cook lime custard prior to 1931, I would celebrate the discovery!”
Parks did consult with Key West historian Tom Hambright, who presides over the archives at the Monroe County Library on Fleming Street. She says Hambright couldn’t point her to a local recipe for Key lime pie prior to one published by the Key West Woman’s Club in 1949.
“He told me Aunt Sally made a good story, but nothing more,” Parks wrote.
Reached Monday, Hambright said a project by the Works Progress Administration in 1935 or 1936 recommends the pie in its notes on Key West.
“I’ll go with my theory,” Hambright said, of the lore that says spongers in the 1890s stuck out on the water who were tired of eating fish came up with a treat — lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, bird eggs and old bread.
”That’s as logical as anything,” he said.
A search through newspaper archives brought up a 1933 Miami Herald article that included a recipe for “Tropical Lime Chiffon Pie,” submitted by Mabel McClanahan of William Street in Key West. Mabel’s ingredients include a can of condensed milk and “three egg yellows.”
A 1936 Herald article included two lime pie recipes obtained from Keys residents before the disastrous 1935 Labor Day hurricane, with the author citing the pie as a Keys original creation and calling it a “Conch contribution to American cookery worthy of the Cordon Bleu.”
Local chefs would like to know more about Parks’ homework.
“It’s important to know, especially living in Key West,” said chef and Key West cooking instructor Martha Hubbard, who owns a copy of BraveTart. ‘We should know its origin. She [Parks] started the argument it wasn’t Key West. It doesn’t make sense. Borden could have adopted it as a marketing tool to sell it.”
Hubbard has always heard of the “sponger pie” story.
Arlo Haskell, a local poet and historian, said it wouldn’t surprise him if Key lime pie was created up North.
“Key lime pie is a sort of a sign of the Keys as a tourist destination,” Haskell said. “Tourism is all about selling the best version of yourself. Its relationship to the truth is often a little loose.”
Haskell said he is fascinated by the Key lime pie origin debate and wants to know the truth.
“It seems to me it was invented down here,” he said. “It’s not going to break my heart if it turns out it was invented somewhere else. Everyone thinks of Key West when they think of Key lime pie today. We’ve staked our claim to it already.”
Key Lime Pie
Recipe from Flavors of the Florida Keys by Linda Gassenheimer
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 1/2-tablespoons sugar
1 1/2-tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons butter
8 egg yolks
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 cup key lime juice
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and flour together. Melt the butter and add to the graham crackers. Stir to make sure all ingredients are combined. Press the mixture into a 9 or 10-inch pie plate. Set aside.
Beat the egg yolks using an electric beater until they are light, about 3 minutes. With the beater running slowly drizzle in the condensed milk. In a steady stream, add the lime juice. Pour into the prepared pie shell. Bake 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes. Refrigerate until needed. Can be frozen for 1 month. Serves 8 to 10.
Optional: Serve with whipped cream and a slice of key lime.