Friday, June 21, 2013

Key Lime Pie

Some people call me The Pie Lady. Not because pies are my favorite dessert— that would be chocolate cake with white buttercream icing, please—but because they’re my husband’s favorite dessert. Actually, his Granny’s guava cobbler might be his first choice, but she didn’t pass the recipe down so now he likes pies.
What is guava cobbler anyway?
I was just a kid when we got married—eighteen and head over heels. Two weeks after our Arizona wedding, Rob “drug me off to the Florida swamps”, as he likes to describe it, and once I realized there were no mountains on the Gulf Coast, homesickness set in like an Everglades fog.
So I started baking.
Since Rob isn’t fond of chocolate or cake, I learned to make pies.  Here’s what I discovered about them—they’re forgiving. Even if the crust is inedible, at least it did its job of protecting the filling, and you can always spoon that hot stuff over vanilla ice cream. Just try that with a ruined cake sometime. Cakes are persnickety.
My mother-in-law doesn’t enjoy cooking, but she still has some stellar recipes up her sleeve and pulls them out if I whine nicely or her boys are around. Finally one day, after I mastered the art of a homemade pie crust, she shared her recipe for Key Lime Pie and we made one together.
It was years before I realized it was a version of the recipe concocted in the Florida Keys about 150 years ago. But this one should have taken top billing from the get-go. JoAnn’s pie elevates key limes so they become the pale green star of the show, held up by a supporting cast of whipped cream and egg whites.

Chiffon Key Lime Pie—it’s only the nectar of the gods.
So I squirreled away that priceless formula—which, by the way, never turns out as well as JoAnn’s because the main ingredient is patience and I’m a bit short on that—and it became my very own Favorite Pie.
Skip ahead fifteen years. This time it was me who dragged my husband and our kids away from the Florida swamps, back to the desert and the mountains I missed. And one afternoon I delivered five of my best pies to a local lunch café which was in search of a pie baker.
As the owner stood at the counter sampling my wares, a friend of hers—a pastry aficionado (in her mind)—pointed at the green chiffon masterpiece JoAnn would have been proud of and decreed,
“That’s not a Key Lime Pie.”
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s how the War Between The States got started. And it was about to get all stoked up again.
“It most certainly is,” I told her. “My mother-in-law has lived in Florida her whole life and she gave me this recipe which she makes with key limes from a tree in her very own yard so that  makes it a real Key Lime Pie,” I ended smugly.
Guess I told you, I wanted to add. But having lived in Florida for ten years, I’m a bit Southern myself now, so I just smiled politely. Right after I determined she was definitely a Yankee.
In the end I was hired but my Key Lime Pie was not. I couldn’t understand it. What was this pretender pie that robbed my heirloom recipe of stardom? Didn’t the café owner realize she could have been famous? And more importantly, do all Arizonans take advice from Northerners?
I went on a mission to prove that JoAnn’s recipe was indeed the genuine article, the real McCoy, and the rightful owner of the name Key Lime Pie.
I found out I was wrong.
I hate it when that happens.
Turns out the original Key Lime Pie was a variation of a lemon icebox pie, and was invented by a cook down in the Florida Keys who was too lazy to find lemons one afternoon and substituted key limes. It’s a flat, tart cheesecake-ish kind of dessert and has none of the richness or class of my mother-in-law’s version.

It’s not even green.
So that little café eventually went out of business, never reaching its potential for fame. All because, I’m convinced, no one recognized the genius of fluffing up a Key Lime Pie filling and caressing it with gobs of whipped cream.
It’s understandable, though. I think they missed the memo about making lemonade when life hands you lemons. And if life hands you limes, find a better recipe than the one everyone else uses.
You can quote me on that. Southerners like me don’t mind.

Photo courtesy of Adam Fagen's photostream at


  1. Love it, Eula! I've had the same experience with Swedish Meatballs. I was told one day that mine weren't real, and boy, did that burn me up. Turned out my Norwegian Grandmother had pulled her recipe from a magazine because she was so tired of taking guff from her Swedish in-laws for not knowing how to make them. I still feel they are the real thing because they are made by someone Swedish (me). Thanks for the laugh!

    1. Ha ha ha! I love that story! And really, where did Swedes come up with the idea of meatballs anyway, hmmm? A little visit to Italy by a home cook who didn't like tomato sauce? And to tell you the truth, my mother-in-law's chiffon pie recipe came from a cookbook and she makes it because she doesn't like the Florida Keys version. I still think that makes it a Key Lime Pie for the same reason you just pointed out - she's from Florida and uses key limes. Thanks so much for your fun comments!

  2. If there is anything I am glad about the distance between us, it is this; I would be so fat from sampling your delicious goodies!!!

    Incidentally, that's also one of the reasons I hate the distance between us.

    I'm a fickle sort.

    1. Ha ha ha! Well, we don't get to eat this pie nearly often enough because I've become a lazy pie lady lately. But the next time we get together, my thin little friend, I'll do my best to fluff you up with some of this pie. Deal? :)

  3. Oh my, I got hungry just reading these! I must say YOUR key lime pie sounds much better to me. Sometimes real is over-rated!

    1. I love your conclusion, Cynthia! I bet there are a lot of other examples of something good going to a whole new level when somebody messed with the recipe. Like . . . cookies and cream ice cream. Oreos are good, ice cream is good, oreos IN ice cream is genius!

  4. I feel really hungry now, even though I'm not a big pastry fan!

    1. I know! And if I keep thinking about this post, I'm gonna have to pull out my pastry blender, whip up a pie crust and create one of these pies before too long!