QT 58 - A Day in The Limelight

QT 58 - A Day in The Limelight

Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, the series where Jon talks about…something. And if think that was a stupid sentence , understand that it’s only barely less vague than the ACTUAL descriptor of this series: “where Jon talks about some facet of Food culture.” Seriously, I wrote myself a LOT of leeway on that one. Anyway, today’s post is about Key Lime Pie.

Now, if you’ve been reading the site of late, you may wonder “Hey, didn’t Jon just DO a post about Key Lime Pie?” And you’d be wrong. That was a post about my recently departed father…in which I MADE a Key Lime Pie. I discussed the dish INCREDIBLY little in the actual post, only giving a two-paragraph summation of the 160-year-history of Sweetened Condensed Milk, that I will, in the spirit of the ingredient, condense even further here: invented to make shelf-stable dairy before refrigeration, after a man on a boat learned some kids died from dirty cows, sold really well during the Civil War, where it turns out it’s hard to make dairy last in a Savannah summer. Been doing brisk business ever since.

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We're talking "started selling back when Scurvy was a legitimate concern" levels of market endurance. 

Of course, the post had only been out for like, an hour and a half before I saw someone asking about the pie’s details, at which point I said “Fuck. Yeah, I normally cover those, don’t I?” And, since there was no way I was adding several hundred or even 1000+ words to a post ALREADY quite probably the longest ever uploaded on the site, I said “Eh, I’ll handle it later.”  And now it’s later. How much later, I don’t know. I’m literally writing this the next day, because I have no reason not to. By which, I actually mean “I suddenly might be out of town for my normal upload times, so I’m trying to get the next two weeks sorted out into 3 days instead of 12. So depending on my productivity tomorrow, this might be the actual next post after the Key Lime post. Or it might be a post about the chickens, we’ll just have to see. (Editor’s Note: it was the chicken thing.)

None of which is actually ABOUT Key Lime Pie, so let’s dig into the history of the dish, shall we?


We’re Really Getting Keyed in, Aren’t We, Amigos?

Title Jon, I need you to stop writing titles with puns based on knowledge the readers don’t know yet, alright? You’re technically like, spoiling yourself. Come on, man.

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If you search for "Spoil Myself", you get a lot of pictures of people's fat pets, and this squirrel, for some reason. 

So, Key Limes: I’m sure we’re all dying to know some fundamental facts about them, like: what are they? Where do they come from?

They’re Limes. They come from the Florida Keys. Please try to ask better questions .

Seriously, though, this is the kind of thing I think of as a “crocodile etymology”, based on a speech in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. While drunk, Antony describes a crocodile as being “shap’d like itself.” He goes on to explain that by this, he means that it is as broad as its breadth and as tall as the top of itself. Further, it moves…using its limbs, and eats on…what feeds it. And it’s the color of a crocodile, as well.

Thus a ‘crocodile etymology’ Is when the origin of a word is…exactly what you think it should be.


Crocodiles, of course, are well known for their open and honest natures. 

The closest we come to any interesting detail is that the word “Key”, when used for an island, is just a sloppy form of “Cay”, from the Spanish word cayo, meaning “a small island”, taken from the Taino word…cayo, which means exactly what you might guess it does.

Quick aside, the Taíno people are the presumed originators of the word “barbecue”, after their word for cooking meats and fish on a raised wooden framework in the smoke of fires. So if someone ever tells you that Key Lime Pie doesn’t belong at a barbecue…Well, they’re really just a dick, and arguing that the two words are from the same etymological source probably isn’t going to be very convincing. It’s like that time I argued with a girlfriend that I didn’t believe in polyamory: that’s mixing Greek and Latin roots. You can have as many mutually supportive and open sexual relationships as you want, but call it multiamory, or polyphilia.  It wasn’t particularly persuasive either, which may be why I no longer have a girlfriend.


Let's be honest, it's at most ONE of the reasons. 

Key Limes are, as the name, and the name’s etymology suggests, a breed of lime grown in the Florida Keys. Interestingly, that sentence isn’t really correct any more: the major Key West lime orchards got the shit knocked out of them in a Hurricane in the early 1900’s, and now most lime trees in the Keys are normal Persian Limes. Key Limes now mostly come from Mexico. Which actually solves another conversation I heard one time. Rick Bayless, talking to a Mexican chef, points out that when Mexicans talk about “limes”, they’re talking about a different fruit than Americans.  One that Americans just “don’t have a parallel for”. Mexican límon , he points out, is more fragrant than American limes, and the skin is yellow, and…these are Key Limes. He’s describing Key Limes. We DO have a parallel for them, Rick, because, as any geometry proof can show you, a line is ALWAYS PARALLEL TO ITSELF.

Excuse me, I’m just getting word that technically Euclid, the father of modern geometry, set forth as an axiom that lines are NOT parallel to themselves, because they “infinitely intersect with themselves”, and something about “reflexive relations”, which is an equation that uses a symbol I have never seen in a mathematical equation, and I passed fucking College Calculus classes. The math nerds are now snickering at my sense of accomplishment,  and suggesting in a rather snarky tone that maybe I shouldn’t talk shit in topics I don’t have the academic backing to use without fucking up.


Seriously, I had several years of relatively high-level mathematics, and I have NEVER seen this asshole before. 

Anyway, Key Limes WERE, for a while, grown in the Florida Keys, and they ARE more yellow than normal limes. Both of these facts will be important in a bit.


This next section is about milk-fat. So I’m going to go listen to Wu-Tang’s C.R.E.A.M

We JUST talked about spoiling upcoming sections, Title Jon. Take those headphones off and listen to me, young man! Ugh. Literary Constructs, am I right?


I mean, there are worse Rappers to be listening to, at least. The Wu are at least GOOD. 

Thank you, more helpful Literary Construct. I guess you people aren’t all bad.

“You people”?

Moving on. So, we have key limes, and that’s literally ¼ of what makes a key lime pie. Another ¼ is the existence of a crust which is, honestly, interchangeable and somewhat unimportant. That leaves only the eggs and the sweetened condensed milk, and let’s talk about what they bring to the science table.

Now, I baked my Key Lime Pie, but technically speaking, I could have chosen to not do so, as the heat only assists the process that’s already being performed in the dish. See, if you’ve ever added acid to milk, you know that it will curdle, separating into essentially whey liquids and milk solids. The trick with Key Lime Pie is that sweetened condensed milk has already had the vast majority of the liquid boiled out.

So the firming up that a Key Lime Pie undergoes is, in essence, the sweetened condensed milk TRYING to curdle from the Lime Juice, and simply solidifying. The Egg yolk modulates this process, being an emulsifying agent: egg yolks contain a compound called ‘lecithin’, which is shaped like a little sperm.


It looks SO much like Sperm, that I actually got pictures of sperm cells FASTER by searching for "lecithin" than I did for searching "sperm". 

The fat little head of the molecule is hydrophilic, meaning it wants to connect with water molecules. The tail is lipophilic, wanting to connect with fat.

 So what happens is, the acid of the lime juice denatures some of the proteins in the sweetened condensed milk, causing them to ‘squeeze’ out their water, and firm up. At the same time, the egg yolk is seeing these huge fat deposits, and this suddenly appearing reserve of water, and is squeezing them into a group hug. This creates the set texture of the pie. Because of this, it’s entirely possible to make a Key Lime Pie without baking it at all. It simply needs to sit longer. (And will probably come out slightly more ‘gooey’, as the baking will allow some whey denaturing, and probably a little evaporation of excess liquid.)


Serving a Slice of History

So, if that’s what a Key Lime is, and how a Key Lime Pie works, where do Key Lime Pies come from?

They come from the Florida Keys. I JUST asked you to learn to ask better questions.

The exact timeline is unclear: at some juncture, sweetened condensed milk made its way to the Florida Keys, and was embraced. (Do you have any idea how quickly fresh milk goes bad in a tropical climate? The answer is “about an hour.” And that’s fairly modern pasteurized milk!)

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If you don't seal this thing, it's gonna be a hot mess in no time at all. 

The pie became widely popular in the region based on a recipe from a woman who worked at William Curry’s mansion. William Curry was an industrial shipping magnate, and he was the one who first started delivering sweetened condensed milk to the Keys. A chef in his home is the first known author of a Key Lime Pie recipe. However, it’s believed that she was not the inventor of the dish. Remember, the process of the Key Lime Pie is fairly automatic. It’s believed that the pie was created by sponge divers, who would mix the lime juice, milk, and eggs on their boat, and let it sit in a cooler or shaded boat while they worked, giving them a refreshing dish to eat while working in the warm Florida sun. The sugar, fat and protein gave them energy, and the lime juice kept it from being too heavy in their guts.

And that’s really all there is to discuss about the dish. History, etymology, science, all covered pretty neatly. I could potentially go into a long discussion about whether using Key Limes versus Persian Limes, and Fresh juice vs bottled, but I’m not going to. Firstly, because that’s mostly a matter of preference, and is therefore subjective, and also because other resources have made those arguments. It’s not the kind of thing that can be solved.

Some people from the Keys argue that it’s not a “real” key lime pie unless it’s topped with meringue. Others insist that it can only be done with the Sweetened Condensed Milk and eggs. Yet, in the Keys themselves, one of the more popular and famous Key Lime Pie stands used vanilla ice cream in its recipe. The man who owns the original Aunt Sally recipe is completely unafraid to serve Key Lime Pies with bacon in the crust, or habanero peppers in the custard.  You’ll see Key Lime Pies with sour cream, fresh cream, pastry crusts, the whole nine yards. I can’t solve that argument. HISTORY can’t solve that argument, since it’s a subjective one. Only you can decide what the ‘best’ Key Lime Pie is, because it’s the best FOR YOU.

So let us know how you make it, if you do. And if you don’t, try a little thought experiment: what do you think COULD go in a Key Lime Pie? What goes great with lime and milk, that could make a truly phenomenal pie?