How a worldly little lime found fame in Florida


Florida State Archives

After a winding journey some 500 years ago, a small, tart lime arrived in the Florida Keys. It had started out in southern Asia and was carried by Arabs across North Africa into Portugal and Spain. Explorers brought it to the Keys, not knowing of course that one day the sour, yellowish fruit would become a Florida culinary icon.

How that came about is a study in pioneer ingenuity –- or, as folks in the Keys might say, Conch can-do.

No one knows for sure who made the first pie with this worldly little lime, but it was after the 1850s, when Gail Borden invented sweetened, condensed, canned milk, which was sold at general stores. Before then, milk wasn’t readily available for folks who lived on the Keys, since dairy cows were about as scarce there as hens’ teeth. Hens, however, were there—and that meant Keys residents had eggs. And they had wild lime trees that sprouted in their backyards long after the Spanish explorers had sailed away.

One day, someone mixed a can of the sweet condensed milk with beaten egg yolks and spiked the concoction with tart lime juice. This creation became a custard that “cooked” from the acidity of the lime, jelling so that it didn’t need to be baked. More importantly, the confection packed a luscious sweet-sour taste that sparkled on the palate. It was an instant hit.

The custard was poured into a baked pastry crust and topped with a meringue of beaten egg whites, resulting in the first Key lime pie. Years later, people began using graham-cracker crusts and topping the pie with whipped cream—and baking the pies because of worries about salmonella in eggs.

These days, finding authentic Key lime pie can be tricky. There are imposters flavored by the bigger, greener, Persian limes that are sold in supermarkets around the country. But the widely available Persian lime just doesn’t have the same sharp tang, taste, or deep-yellow color as the Key lime.

Real Key limes are harder to find. A 1926 hurricane reportedly destroyed lime groves planted by commercial growers in the Keys. Groves are cultivated elsewhere now, although backyard trees still exist in Florida.

Still, after all its travels and travails, the Key lime is in Florida to stay. In 2006, the Legislature proclaimed that Key lime pie is Florida’s official state pie.

Florida’s Key Lime Pie recipe from 1964 postcard above

An authentic Key Lime Pie with native key limes. Note the creamy yellow inside. Key Lime Pie is world famous for a just-right tart taste.

4 Eggs
1 can Condensed Milk
1/3 Cup Key Lime Juice

Beat the yolks of 4 eggs and the white of one until thick. Add the condensed milk and beat again. Add the lime juice and beat until thick. Beat the 3 remaining egg whites until dry and fold in the mixture. Pour into a baked pie shell. Separate two eggs, beat the whites with two tablespoons of sugar until stiff and forms peaks. Spread on top of pie and bake in oven until meringue is brown.


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