The History of Key Lime Pie

They say key lime pie originated in Key West some time toward the end of the 1800s. As the story goes, one William Curry, a prominent Key West resident and Bahamian-born immigrant who became Florida's first millionaire, had a cook called "Aunt Sally" who concocted the first pie from key limes. I don't know if this story is true, but it is widely repeated.

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

A funny thing happens when you combine lime juice and sweetened, condensed milk. It sort of "cooks" itself without any heat. The eggs, I'm told, add extra body to the mix, and by the way, give key lime pie its traditional yellow color.

Around the time of Aunt Sally, these three ingredients were readily available in the Keys. Key limes grew all over the place. Keys people of that day had no refrigeration, and mighty few cows, since there wasn't much in the Keys for cows to eat. But the old conchs, as they called themselves, did have as a staple cans of sweetened, condensed milk, which Gail Borden had begun producing in 1856. And they had eggs--either from chickens or other birds whose nests they managed to rob.

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 logically used the readily available key limes, which turned out to be a historical substitution.

Talking with Miss Edith
To find out more about Aunt Sally, I called Edith Amsterdam, the proprietor of Key West's Curry Mansion.

This is the place where ol' Curry himself lived. Miss Edith was gracious and charming, and willingly spoke with me about Curry, his mansion, and Aunt Sally. As we were speaking, Miss Edith was actually sitting in Aunt Sally's kitchen--considered by many to be ground zero for key lime pie.

I asked Miss Edith if she knew Aunt Sally's last name. Unfortunately, she did not. She did tell me that Aunt Sally--a Bahamian--was William Curry's cook, who lived in a little house there on the mansion's property. She thought Aunt Sally may been making her now-famous pies somewhere around 1908.

Curry, it seems logical to assume, was a Key West muckety-muck, and my guess is quite a few people were dinner guests from time to time at the mansion. They probably left raving about that pie, which helped spread its reputation.

But...What about Aunt Sally?
Now, let me get this straight. Aunt Sally makes culinary history, and nobody even knows her last name?

I wanted to know her name, when she lived, when she died, was she married, and did she have children. Where did she learn to cook? Did she like being a cook? What were her aspirations? Also, for history's sake, a picture would be nice.

The Clerk of the Court
If anybody knows anything about anybody in the State of Florida, it's the county clerk who keeps the public records. The clerk records every significant legal detail including day you're born and the day you die, plus the stuff in between--marriages, birth of children, divorces, real property ownership, bankrupcies, you name it.

Maybe, I thought, just maybe the Monroe County Clerk of the Court could tell me something about Aunt Sally, even if it was just the date of her death, assuming, of course, she died in the Keys where she had lived.

Maybe there'd be a death certificate.

But I ran into a Catch 22--without a last name they can't find a death certificate, and without a death certificate I can't find a last name.

The Key West Historian
But the clerk's office did give me Tom Hambright's name--a Key West historian, who they say knows as much about Key West history as anybody. Tom told me a lot of people would like to know more about Aunt Sally, but no one has yet to uncover her last name. Another dead end.

Regarding the origin of key lime pie, Tom told me his theory. Sponge fishermen around Key West used to stay at sea for quite a while. Their rations aboard would have included sweetened, condensed milk--which by itself tastes awful, plus key limes, which by themselves also taste awful. Eggs also were probably aboard.

At some point, somebody finally figured out that if you mix those things together, stuff that by itself tastes awful, now tastes g-r-r-r-eat.

"The crust," Tom said, "was made of Uneeda crackers." This product was Nabisco's Uneeda Biscuit, the now-discontinued crackers, first introduced in 1898, that were essentially unsalted soda crackers. Of course, Graham crackers were also available at the time, so a Graham cracker crust might have been used as well.

Tom went on to explain his theory that Aunt Sally may have learned of key lime pie from sponge fishermen, and figured, as Tom said, "she could make it for the old man."

The rest, as they say, is history. Even if Aunt Sally didn't actually come up with the idea of key lime pie, it was she who spread it around, so to her go the historical credits.

Tom also related to me one last curious fact. The first written reference he can find to key lime pie is in a 1930s WPA (Works Progress Administration) promotional which mentions "world-famous" key lime pie. He said a 1920 Key West woman's club cookbook says nothing about key lime pie. Was it because key lime pie didn't exist, or was it because it was so common and easy to make the Woman's Club didn't consider it worthy of their fine publication?

I don't have the answers, but I do have some homemade key lime pie in the kitchen. As a matter of fact, I've been thinking about it for the last few hours while working on this page. Excuse me, will you, while I go raid the fridge.





Welcome to Key Largo

A View of John Pennekamp Beach

Christ of the Abyss

SCUBA diver on a Key Largo Reef

Sign warning we play Jimmy Buffet music

A quaint Key Largo cottage

Copyright© 2010 Collingwood Publications, LLC.