Its origins are shrouded in mystery; no one can really say for sure where it came from but most people can agree that it’s not only an amazing dessert, but also an American icon. Key Lime Pie, like all great foods, seems so simple and yet it is so much more complicated than I ever realized before starting my search for the perfect example of this delicious dessert during my first trip to the Florida Keys. Like many comfort foods, a number of people lay claim to having invented it and even more swear that their version is the best example of this light and tart pastry. While my search was not nearly as comprehensive as I would have liked, eating my way around the Florida Keys was fun and, yes, I did eventually find that perfect piece of pie.
I’m partnering this year with Marriott International to share some of my favorite spots to visit around the U.S., including one of America’s earliest vacation spots, the Florida Keys.
Key West has seen many boom and bust cycles with unlikely industries taking root and making a few people millions of dollars in the process. One of those early industries was sponge fishing and that may be where the history of the Key Lime Pie starts. Maybe. Since fishermen spent days at sea, they needed items that wouldn’t spoil, like condensed milk and limes. Even the residents of Key West needed this before the days of refrigeration, which is where the history of the pie may begin. Legend has it that a woman named Aunt Sally, the cook for a wealthy ship salvager, was the first to create what is now the Florida state pie. By adapting a recipe already created by those sponge fishermen, she introduced to her employer a dessert unlike any other. The pie itself is made of Key lime juice, egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk in a pie crust. The traditional version uses the egg whites to make a luscious meringue topping. Originally this was a no-bake pie, the chemical reaction between the proteins of the egg yolks and condensed milk with the acidic lime juice causes the filling to thicken without baking. So it appears we have our answer, right? Aunt Sally is the proud creator of this yummy dessert. Not so fast.
Cookbook author and food historian Stella Parks found a recipe from 1931 that uses lemons instead of limes, but it’s essentially the same concept as a traditional Key Lime Pie. Lemons were substituted because they were easier to find than Key limes. The shocker though is the origins of this recipe – the Borden condensed milk company in New York City. Like many food manufacturers, it was in their best interest to find new and creative ways for people to use their products, which is how the recipe for Magic Lemon Cream Pie was created. Parks posits that the recipe made its way to Florida not soon after where bakers simply switched out the citrus fruits. The truth is, no one can say for certain where or by who Florida’s Key Lime Pie was created, but there’s no doubt that today the Florida Keys have completely embraced it as their own.
Tilting at Windmills
Driving down from Miami to Key West, I spent a couple of days driving; wanting to slowly enjoy my first time visiting the area. Along the way I stopped off at more than one candy shop and souvenir stand where I was consistently amazed by how many ways Key Lime could be incorporated into foodstuffs. Fudge, salsa, mustard – you name it and there is a Key Lime version of it. I wasn’t interested in these chemically enhanced snacks though, I was curious to find the perfect piece of Key Lime Pie, a task more daunting than I could have every imagined.
The reason for that is due to how very seriously people take this dessert. They’re not just passionate about it, they’re fanatical about its creation and enjoyment and defend vigorously their own versions. There are probably hundreds of different places to sample a Key Lime Pie in the Florida Keys and I know as I write this that many people will say I erred by not visiting THEIR favorite establishment. I am but one man though, I was in the Keys for only a few days and it was physically impossible, and financially irresponsible, for me to eat several hundred pieces of pie. So with that in mind, I can only report back on my personal experiences as I ate far more pie than any doctor would rationally recommend consuming.
More than anything, I wanted a traditional Florida Keys dining experience, which is how I found myself at the extraordinarily laid back Robbie’s, just south of Islamorada. I fully expected to see Jimmy Buffett walk out at any moment, that’s how perfectly this chill spot has embraced the lifestyle. Sitting outside, enjoying the warm weather and beautiful sunset I had an incredible meal, but it was the homemade Key Lime Pie that stole the show. A modest looking pie – no over-the-top meringues here – the top was lightly caramelized which, for me at least, completely transformed the dessert into something extra special. It’s a touch I never saw repeated, but in all honesty it probably should be.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (Key Largo)
The longest running restaurant in Key Largo, this was an easy drive from my hotel the Key Largo Marriott Resort and stopping there was one of the best decisions I made on the trip. I excitedly ordered the pie, like thousands of people before me, and anxiously awaited its arrival. The version at Mrs. Mac’s is served partially frozen, a perfect way to enjoy this tart dessert. Cold and creamy everything was homemade and, like Robbie’s, was topped not with meringue with whipped cream. The restaurant of course serves more than pie, and a meal here is a must for anyone passing by.
Key Lime Pie Co. (Key West)
Although this was recommended to me, I was still a little hesitant to include it in my tasting spree because it seemed so corporate, so different from the other restaurants on my list. There’s a reason for that, in 2014 the company reached out to entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis – the star of the show “The Profit” – who partnered with the company to help them improve their business. They say that they use a 100-year old recipe, which seems to run slightly counter to historical evidence, but the pies are indeed made fresh every day. I enjoyed this version, although I didn’t think I would. All of the flavors were on point and I like the fact that the filling was extra thick.
Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe (Key West)
For more than 26 years, Kermit’s has been serving up not only homemade Key Lime Pie, but a whole host of other Key Lime flavored products. I walked by all of those extras though and promptly ordered my pie along with a glass of Key Lime-ade for good measure. Sitting on their shady back patio, I took a bite and instantly understood how they have withstood the test of time. Although very traditional with few embellishments, it hits all of the right notes. As an added bonus, the shop is just steps from Key West’s bustling Historic Seaport.
You’re not going to be at all happy with the results of my quest to find the perfect Key Lime Pie. The reason is that there isn’t a definitive “best” slice of pie. Instead, it’s entirely up to personal preference and tastes. For me, ultimately, that version was found at Robbie’s but for others it could be found much further afield. What I did learn throughout my days of eating though was how to better appreciate the history and culture of the Florida Keys and the places where my quest took me were the real highlights of my adventure.