Key Lime Pie History

Did you know that Key lime pie, unlike apple pie, is a uniquely American dessert?  

Key West, Florida, is famous for its fabulous key lime pie, one of America’s best-loved regional dishes.  


Every restaurant in the Florida Keys, and especially in the city of Key West, serves this wonderful pie.  There seems to be a key lime pie for every palate, with numerous versions made throughout the region.  This pie is considered the official pie of the Florida Keys.

The traditional key lime pie filling contains key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, and egg yolks.

Almost every family in Florida has a recipe for Key lime pie and they all claim it is the only authentic version.  Aficionados of key lime pies argue endlessly about the proper way to make one.  Graham-cracker or pastry crust? Meringue on top or whipped cream, or neither?  Cooked or uncooked filling?  The one thing that they do agrees on is that under no circumstances should you ever add green food coloring.  The filling of authentic key lime pie is a light yellow.


Key Lime Pie

Check out Linda’s favorite recipe for Key Lime Pie.


History of Key Lime Pie:

As to who made the first key lime pie, no one really knows for sure as it has never been documented.  


1800s – William Curry (1821-1896), a ship salvager and Florida’s first self-made millionaire (commonly referred to as rich Bill), had a cook that was simply know as Aunt Sally.  It was Aunt Sally who created the pie in the late 1800s.  Some historians think that Aunt Sally didn’t create the Key Lime Pie, but probably perfected a delicacy that was the creation of area fishermen.  William Curry built a lavish mansion for his family in 1855 that still is being used today as the Curry Mansion Inn.  

I do not know if this story is true, but it is widely repeated.  One theory is that Aunt Sally already knew how to make a lemon ice box pie which also uses sweetened, condensed milk and egg yolks.  But instead of lemons, she used the readily available local key limes.


Sponge Fishermen:  Another theory on who first made Key Lime Pie is that sponge fishermen around Key West used to stay at sea for quite a while.  Sponge fishing was a booming new business in South Florida but the margins were slim so the rations were meager on his boat – some sugar, eggs, canned milk, soda crackers, some nuts, and citrus fruit.  Word spread quickly among the fisherman and the cool tart pie became a staple on those fishing trips.  One of these men, maybe even the one who made that inaugural pie, shared the recipe with some woman folk.  Perhaps he shared it with Aunt Sally!


1930s – It was not until the 1930s that the first recipes were written down.  Until then everyone just knew how to make the pie.  No fresh milk, no refrigeration, and no ice was available in the Keys until the arrival of tank trucks with the opening of the Overseas Highway in 1930.  Because of this lack of milk, local cooks had to rely on canned sweetened condensed milk, which was invented in 1856 by Gail Borden.  Key lime may be the star ingredient of the key lime pie, but it is the sweetened condensed milk that makes it so smooth and delicious.

Key limes are the pink flamingos of Florida food, and they are a celebrated part of local color.  The key lime tree, which is native to Malaysia, probably first arrived in the Florida Keys in the 1500s with the Spanish.  Key limes look like confused lemons, as they are smaller than a golf ball with yellow-green skin that is sometimes splotched with brown.  They are also know as Mexican or West Indian limes.  When a hurricane in 1926 wiped out the key lime plantations in South Florida, growers replanted with Persian limes, which are easier to pick and to transport.  Today the key lime is almost a phantom and any remaining trees are only found in back yards and their fruit never leave the Florida Keys.  Key limes are also grown for commercial use in the Miami area.


1965 – Florida State Representative Bernie Papy, Jr. introduced legislation calling for a $100 fine to be levied against anyone advertising key lime pie that is not made with key limes.  This bill did not pass.


In 1994   The Florida State Legislature officially recognized Key Lime Pie as an important symbol of Florida.

The road to becoming the official state pie, was not an easy one.  Since the 1980s, North Florida lawmakers have debated that a pie made of pecans, grown in Florida, would better reflect the state’s history.  House Bill 453 and Senate Bill 676 of the Florida Legislature’s Regular 2006 Session made the Key Lime Pie the official Florida state pie as of July 1, 2006.


Bahama Currys.
The Curry Family of Monroe County, Florida.
The Remarkable History of the Key Lime Pie, by Scott Hutcheson
SB 676 – Official State Pie/Key Lime.




Deep South    Food History    Fruit Pies & Tarts    Limes    Pie Recipes & History   

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