In a span of more than 100 years, Florida has designated 34 official state symbols, including a state marine mammal (the manatee), a state beverage (orange juice), and a state seal (of a man carrying a live alligator while he purchases beer at a convenience store). In 2006, a bill proposed in the state House of Representatives and a second one from the state Senate were both passed, naming Key Lime Pie as the state’s official pie.
But—and this is a big but—a Kentucky-born pastry chef and cookbook author has recently suggested that Florida’s state pie originated not in a millionaire’s kitchen in the Keys, but in the New York headquarters of a condensed milk manufacturer.
In her James Beard award-winning cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, Stella Parks wrote that Key Lime Pie was a regional variation of the recipe that was introduced by the Borden company; it eventually made its way into the hands of home-chefs in the Sunshine State, who adapted and improved it using the fruit that eventually became its namesake.
“I believe that this sequence of events started with a 1931 recipe from Borden Dairy called ‘Magic Lemon Pie,’ a no-cook lemon custard based on condensed milk and lemon juice,” Parks told MUNCHIES. “The recipe's novel method was extremely popular with American bakers right off the bat, and circulated widely in newspapers and Women's Club cookbooks throughout the US in the years to follow.”
While researching her own cookbook, she looked at vintage recipes, archived newspapers and even consulted with a Key West historian—but she couldn’t find a record of anyone using condensed milk to make that now-familiar Key Lime Pie before 1931.
“It's my belief that in Florida cooks encountered this national advertising campaign in 1931, and adapted the recipe to the Key limes growing wild in their backyards,” she said. “This would have been a vast improvement, as sour limes have a flavor, acidity, and aroma better suited to cutting through the richness and sweetness of canned milk, thereby bringing the pie into balance. On its own, Borden's Magic Lemon Pie would have faded from existence like any other fad, but this smart adaptation from Florida bakers put it on the map, where it became a local specialty that grew in popularity over the decades to follow, leading to the tremendous national attention it would receive from the 1950s onward.”
Florida residents—especially those who live in Key West—are taking Parks’ findings rationally and respectfully. LOL, just kidding—they’re mad as shit.
“Her declarations have prompted myself and others to come forward and present facts that prove the author is a condescending hack who has most of her facts wrong,” David Sloan, the author of The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook told the Key West Citizen. (He also used the term “fake news.”)
Sloan, who also founded the island’s Key Lime Festival, believes ‘the Aunt Sally theory’ when it comes to the pie’s origin. That story—which Parks included in BraveTart—suggests that the canned milk-and-lime pie was invented in the 1860s by “Aunt Sally,” the family cook for a Key West millionaire named William Curry. Although Parks said that there weren’t any historical documents to support that story, Sloan basically says, bullshit, I’m a historical document.
He told the Citizen that the Curry family owned a store that sold condensed milk and that he’d gone full Ancestry.com to figure out who Aunt Sally really was. “My dad is a genealogist, who helped me with tricks of the ancestral searches, and he let me know that Sally was a nickname for Sarah back then,” he said. “Sarah Jane Lowe Curry was an aunt to William Curry’s 14 grandchildren. She lived from 1848 to 1906. We found an Aunt Sally connected to the Curry Mansion who was married to a guy who sold one of the main ingredients in Key lime pie. This isn’t the kind of connection you stumble upon without research.”
Sloan also has a Key West Citizen newspaper clipping advertising a 10-cent “lime pie” at the Green Lantern Inn. That clipping is dated from January, 1926, which would predate the Borden Magic Lemon Pie recipe by five years. “Sing on about Borden, Stella,” Sloan parped. “We have proof from 1926 that you are wrong.”
Well, maybe—but Parks says there’s no proof that’s the same kind of pie at all. “Our understanding of history is only as complete as our documentation, and that understanding should evolve as new sources are uncovered,” she said. “But those sources have to be more than hearsay and lore, and we can't let confirmation bias lead us to assume that historical references to ‘lime pie’ must conform to the modern definition of a Key lime pie.
“I want to be clear that I'm not interested in taking anyone down,” she continued. “If an author has found verifiable evidence that incorporating canned milk into a no-cook lime custard was a technique that originated in Florida prior to 1931, I would celebrate the discovery!”
If that doesn’t happen, we’re crossing our fingers that the Key Lime Origin Story will be officially named Florida’s State Controversy.