On the waterfront, Key Largo

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By: Jeff Klinkenberg

We take our Key lime pie seriously in Florida. Try to pass off a pie made with a Persian lime and we will call you out. Key limes are as small as golf balls. They’re greenish-yellow and mouth-puckering tart. You can’t have a Key lime pie without them.

Now for the bad news. The groves in Key West and Key Largo and Islamorada I remember from my boyhood are gone. But I’m happy to say my favorite limes grow in many a Florida Keys backyard. A grove on the Florida mainland and several in Mexico serve commercial markets. So visitors to the Keys will not be deprived of a genuine Florida Key Lime pie.

A key lime plant growing the limes

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A slice of key lime pie

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A slice of Key lime pie should be served with a glass of cold milk and a generous serving of history. In the 19th century, juice from Key limes was used by island families to add flavor to fish, turtle and conch steaks. And that’s it. The pie was born when New Yorker Gail Borden patented condensed milk, which required no refrigeration in the ice-challenged Keys. The first Key lime pies weren’t even baked. First, cooks formed a pie shell using Graham Crackers – another 19th century development – and butter and sugar. Next, the cook mixed in the condensed milk and eggs. The acidy Key lime juice, carefully stirred in, reacted with the milk and eggs and cooked the pie.

That’s how my friend Kermit Carpenter, now in his 70s, was taught by his grandmother, Maude. He bakes them now – about 200 pies a day – at both of his Key West Lime Shoppes. I always stop for a slice. 

But honestly, I usually eat my weight in Key Lime pie at hotels, restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints up and down the Keys. I like to think I’m preserving history, of course.

No need to tell my cardiologist.

A pot of freshly made key lime pie garnished with key lime slices

Key lime pie, the final result, next to a bowl of key limes, the key ingredient.

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A lush green key lime hanging from the plant

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