ERE IN KEY WEST, OUR PASSIONS ARE MYRIAD. TUTUS, parades, Sunday funday, glitter and… Key lime pie. There are as many varieties of Key lime pie on the island as there are colors of tutus sold at Fairvilla. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised to know that feuds have led to fisticuffs over just whose pie is the creamiest of the crop. Is it Blue Heaven, with it’s sticky sky-high meringue? Or Kermit’s, with its delicate ring of creamy rosettes around the thin graham cracker crust? And those two are just the tip of the citrusy iceberg. While we’ll refrain from expressing our official opinion here at the Florida Weekly Key West Edition, we do recommend that you try as many varieties as possible … you know, for the sake of culinary science.
Key lime pie-making is a competitive business, and opinions on the best way to make one are myriad: Do you cover the pie in chocolate, freeze it and serve it on a stick? Do you dye the filling an unnatural shade of green? Should the texture be more custardy or creamy?
And things get even more heated when the topic of topping arises. There are two schools of thought on how the top of a perfect Key lime pie should be crowned, and each school is vehemently convinced that theirs is the truest, purest way of pie-making. Ask a local on the proper way to top a pie — is it a dollop of whipped cream or a colossal mound of slightly toasted meringue? — and you might be there all day, trapped in an endless lecture about just how wrong the “other side” is. A tip from an expert who’s been there, heard that: just agree with the invective and then back away slowly and respectfully, as you would from a rabid Key West rooster, and hopefully you won’t get pecked.
Pies may be a serious business but when it comes to the limes themselves, we’re far more equal opportunity gastronomes. Culinarians here in the Keys will throw Key lime into anything that can take it, standard culinary usage be damned. Key lime beer? The folks over at the Waterfront Brewery would agree that it’s as natural as pairing peanut butter and jelly. Key lime sea salt? Most food could use a little extra citrus anyway. Key lime cocktail sauce? Pass the Key West pinks.
So, it seems fitting, then, that there’s an entire festival devoted to Key West’s love of Key limes happening from July 4-7. There will be plenty of Key lime-flavored food and drink, of course, but that’s just the beginning. Think bigger. Think bolder. Think pies dropping from the sky — literally.
The Key Lime Festival in its current incarnation is the brainchild of local creatives Marky Pierson and David Sloan, who have dedicated their careers in Key West to bringing weird and wonderful events to town. Whether it’s organizing an 8,000-person Zombie Bike Ride down Duval St., or the first (and probably only?) 0k footrace in the country, both men have developed reputations as Key West renaissance men, their names associated with a staggeringly long list of popular events, productions and publications.
Sloan had already published his book, “The Key Lime Cookbook,” when a friend suggested that he try to resurrect the old Key Lime Festival, which had died out decades ago. It was a good fit: Sloan had worked as a professional baker in his youth, so he certainly knew the power of a good Key lime pie. And during his research on Key West’s haunted history, he’d gone searching for ghost stories at the Curry Mansion and instead discovered a yellowed and faded Key lime pie recipe card, claiming to be the provenance of the celebrated dessert. Being a fan of all things historic and odd about Key West, Sloan’s interest was sufficiently piqued. He reached out to Pierson, whom he knew suffered from a not uncommon Keys-specific affliction: a love of Key limes so strong he cooked his breakfast with them every morning.
The pair were so perfect for this project not even Nicholas Sparks could have invented the whimsical serendipity of the arrangement. Together, the two agreed to resuscitate the long-forgotten festival, modernizing the events so as to attract a new group of fans. Together, they’ve produced the new and improved Key Lime Festival, now in its seventh year.
The Festival consists of a wide spectrum of citrus-celebratory activities spread across four days, with events ranging from intimate culinary classes to the hugely popular Key Lime Sip & Stroll, where ten bars will compete for the honor of calling themselves the purveyors of the best Key lime cocktail on the island. There are self-paced pie samplings that wind through town, raffles, a pie-eating contest (duh) and more.
The Festival officially begins at 11 a.m. on Thursday, July 4, with a Kick-Off Party at the Southernmost Beach Café at 1405 Duval St. And though the Fourth of July is typically associated with backyard BBQs and fireworks, the highlight of the day for many Key West residents has to be the Mile-High Key Lime Pie Eating Contest, scheduled to kick off at high noon on Thursday at the Southernmost Beach Café (“It’s the Southernmost City’s answer to Nathan’s hot dog eating contest!” says Sloan).
The contest, which has received national media coverage, promises to be a profoundly immodest and delightfully messy good time for all. Audience members can watch for free as ticketed competitors are lined up with their hands tied behind their backs and a 9-inch pie placed in front of them. At the start, they dive in head first, attempting to slurp their way to victory via assorted kinds of scarfing strategies (popular techniques include the “faceplant” and the “lawnmower”). The first to devour the whole pie wins.
After the pie eating extravaganza, you can make your way down Duval to the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery (107 Simonton St.) for Hooker Pie with Chef Paul Menta, where local celebrity chef and rum distiller Paul Menta will teach you how to make your very own Key lime pie while regaling you with tales of the fascinating history behind the earliest version of the dessert as it was prepared by the local fishermen (who, FYI, were known as “sponge hookers” in the Florida Keys).
It wouldn’t be a Fourth of July celebration without a stunning pyrotechnic display, so the Casa Marina Resort (1500 Reynolds St.) will host a fireworks beach picnic at 5 p.m., with proceeds to benefit the local Rotary Club of Key West. If you can’t bring yourself to travel that far, stick around the First Legal Rum Distillery for Key Lime Cocktails with Crystal, where you can learn to make a killer Key lime cocktail with local mixologist (and Chef Menta’s wife) Crystal Villegas.
Early risers will be thrilled to know that Friday morning holds a number of interesting options for the Key lime obsessed. At 9:30 a.m., festival co-founder, chef and food writer David Sloan will host “Key Limes & Coffee: The Fascinating History of Key Lime Pie “at the White Tarpon (700 Front St.). Show up hungry for knowledge — Sloan plans to answer your most burning questions, like “Which Key lime pie ingredient was created to stop sexual urges?” and “Where can you really find the best Key lime pie in town?”
At 11 a.m., the First Legal Rum Distillery will host a free Key lime rum sampling and distillery tour. Though we know you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning, try to keep the sampling to a minimum — the day is too long and too full to burn out early. If you can’t help yourself (and we don’t blame you), grab a disco nap before you stop for a photo-op with the famous Kermit Carpenter of Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shop (200 Elizabeth St.). Ask nicely and he may even let you wear his ever-present toque.
After the success of last year’s inaugural hunt, this year’s Key Lime Scavenger Hunt will add a little adventure to the pie-filled weekend. On Friday at 3:30 p.m., hungry hunters can convene at Conch Republic Seafood Company (631 Greene St.) and follow clues to famous Key West sites, iconic landmarks, hidden local spots and — naturally — a bar or two along the way. Learn more and register in advance at www.keylimefestival.com/keylimehunt.
If you want to get cozy with the man behind the Key Lime Festival, plan on posting up at the Curry Mansion at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Sloan himself will be on hand signing his famous Key Lime Pie Cookbook at the very location where Key lime pie was first created. $25 gets lucky participants a glass of champagne, an autographed copy of Sloan’s cookbook and the opportunity to explore the public rooms of the Curry Mansion, including the famous widow’s walk and the kitchen where Aunt Sally created the first Key lime pie.
Tuck in early Friday night so you can hit Saturday morning’s edition of “Key Limes & Coffee: Key Lime Planting & Propagation” at 9:30 a.m. back at the White Tarpon, where Paul Menta and Grimal Grove’s Grove Master Patrick Garvey will host an informative talk on planting and propagating the increasingly difficult to find Key lime tree.
At 11 a.m. on Saturday (give or take a couple dozen minutes — we are on “island time,” after all) at the Key West Lighthouse, the most brilliant and inventive minds of Key West (who some might argue ought to be solving the world’s problems instead of wasting away in the Keys playing with fruit) will attempt to drop a pie from the top of the iconic 73-foot tall lighthouse … without damaging the pie. The Key West Art & Historical Society will be graciously supplying 5-inch diameter pies and anyone is welcome to participate, so dust off those old high school physics principles and devise a device to protect your precious pie from near-certain pulverization (try to say that three times fast).
Points will be awarded based on landing proximity to the target below the lighthouse and the condition of the pie when it lands. Additional prizes will be given to the “Most Creative Design,” “Best Decorated” and “Best Key Lime Theme.” You can register for the contest (and reserve your pie) at www.keylimefestival.com/ pie-drop. But if the thought of complex cranial gymnastics on a Saturday morning makes your brain hurt (too many Key lime martinis, perhaps?), spectators are highly encouraged to cheer on the catapulting pies from the ground below. There will be food vendors, a full bar, hot tunes by Soundwaves’ DJ Top Jimmy, SnoCones, a kids’ zone with face painting and a giant waterslide and “loads of limey fun for all ages.”
After all of the pies have plummeted, it’s time for the Key Lime Cocktail Sip & Stroll. The crawl begins at General Horseplay (423 Caroline St.) at 2 p.m. From there, meander to the other participating bars at your leisure to discern which establishment makes the best Key lime cocktail on the island. From there, the night is your own (although after ten cocktails, you may not make it past sunset).
Bright and early Sunday morning, plan to hit the last installment of “Key Limes & Coffee: The Keys’ First Key Limes” at 9:30 a.m. at the White Tarpon. Join beloved author and Florida Keys historian Brad Bertelli to learn who introduced Key limes to the Keys, how the Key lime got its name and what role arsenic poisoning played in the history of the diminutive citrus fruit.
After you’re sufficiently caffeinated, fill your belly with brunch at the Southernmost Beach Café, which will be featuring a special Key lime French toast in honor of the Key Lime Festival. And if you can stand to shove any more food into your piehole (pun very much intended), end your Key Lime Festival weekend with the Key Lime Pie Hop, which kicks off at 2 p.m. at the Conch Republic Seafood Company and allows you the chance to sample Key lime pie from five different pie purveyors.
Sloan is candid about the festival’s importance to locals cursed with Key lime fever. “Some people are really into Key limes. Really, really into Key limes. I’m talking Key lime freak level,” he explains. “It’s pretty cool seeing the smiles on their faces when they get all Key lime freaky. They do odd little dances and tell stories about Key lime pie. It’s nice to know we are providing a safe venue for them to do this. They would probably get arrested for such behavior anywhere else.”
It’s tireless work arranging such a massive event, and planning starts early. Sloan, Pierson and a team made up of paid staff and volunteers work on securing vendors, sponsors, and event ideas almost a full year in advance. It’s not exactly a moneymaker, either. Still, Sloan is cheerfully optimistic when discussing what the future of the Key Lime Festival might look like. “Our only goal when we started this was: Let’s have fun,” he says, “(and) we try to stick with that. Nobody is getting rich off of this, but we’ll keep doing it as long as it is fun.” And as long as Sloan and Pierson and their team of whimsical festival elves are involved, fun is pretty much guaranteed. ¦