IN TERMS OF SIZE, THE KEY LIME CITRUS AURANTIFOLIA TO BOTANISTS — isn’t the most impressive of citruses. It’s not the rarest, or the biggest. The plant itself isn’t gorgeous, either — it’s thorny, scrubby and prone to whitefly infestations. It apparently arrived in the Keys via Spain, by way of Sicily, by way of North Africa, by way of the Middle East. Quite a journey for a sour little fruit the size of a golf ball. And yet, if you weren’t familiar with it before arriving in the Keys, you’d be forgiven for assuming that, beneath the knobby, chartreuse colored rind, lay a center of solid gold.
Or at least something slightly more palatable than the eye-wateringly sour pulp that nevertheless is treated with a reverence — bordering on abnormal — in Key West.
People down here are crazy for Key limes. They’ll wait until the dead of night and then scramble over fences and into private yards (ever heard of the justifiable use of force statute? Florida isn’t exactly famous for its private citizens welcoming intruders with open arms) risking life and limb to score a pie’s worth of Key limes.
We Key West residents have become famous worldwide for our obsessive love of this diminutive delicacy, which we squeeze by the dozens in order to produce one yellow-green, creamy pie so tasty that in 2006 it was designated Florida’s official pie.
Celebrities visit our island and play favorites, hopping back and forth between various restaurants and bakeries, each of which claim that their pies are the absolute best in town.
Paula Deen, Kenny Chesney, Guy Fieri; pie-making establishments are all quick to point out which famous faces have stopped in to shove a slice of pie into their respective famous mouths.
It’s a competitive business, and opinions on the best way to make one are varied: Do you cover the pie in chocolate and serve it on a stick? Do you color the filling? Five eggs or three? Should the texture be more a custard or a cream? And on top? Well, that’s when things get really heated. There are two schools of thought on what should crown the top of a perfect Key lime pie, and they’re both vehemently convinced that theirs is the truest, purist way of pie-making, the other sheer blasphemy.
Ask a local the proper way to top a pie — with a rosette-shaped dollop of whipped cream or a colossal mound of slightly toasted meringue — and you might be there all day, trapped in a dogmatic lecture about just how wrong the “other side” is. It can be intimidating, or even scary. Just agree with them and then back away slowly and respectfully, as you would from a grizzly bear, and hopefully you won’t get bitten.*
Our pies are serious business, but when it comes to the limes themselves we’re actually not that picky about where we put the things; we’ll throw Key lime into anything that can take it, standard culinary pairings be damned.
Key lime beer? Sure. Key lime peanuts? Why not. Key lime cocktail sauce? Pass the shrimp. It’s all good.
So it seems fitting, then, that there’s an entire festival devoted to Key West’s love of Key limes happening July 2-4. There’ll be plenty of Key lime flavored food and drink, of course, but that’s just the beginning. Think bigger. Think bolder. Think … Key lime-ier.
The Key Lime Festival in its current incarnation is the brainchild of locals 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 a 5,000-person Zombie Bike Ride down Duval Street or establishing the first ghost tour on the island, both men have developed reputations as Key West Renaissance men, their names associated with a staggeringly long list of popular events and productions.
Mr. 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 recently gone looking for ghost stories at the Curry Mansion and wound up discovering a shabby Key lime pie recipe card, claiming provenance of the celebrated dessert.
Being a fan of all things historic and odd about Key West, his interest was sufficiently piqued. He reached out to Mr. Pierson, whom he knew suffered from a popular Keys-specific affliction: a love of Key limes so strong he cooked his breakfast with them every morning.
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 fourth year.
They’ve scheduled a wide spectrum of citrus-celebrating activities across three days, with events ranging from intimate culinary classes to the hugely popular Key Lime Sip & Stroll, which sees 15 bars 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, brewery tours highlighting the craft of Key lime beer preparation, raffles, cooking classes and more. The festival kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 2, with a tour of the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery at 105 Simonton St.
But the highlight for many has to be the Mile High Key Lime Pie Eating Contest scheduled for the Fourth of July (“The southernmost city’s answer to Nathan’s hot dog eating contest!” says Sloan), which has received national media coverage and promises to be a profoundly immoderate 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, 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 (Are you a face-planter, or do you methodically start at the edge and work your way across, like a lawnmower?). First to devour the whole pie wins. The current record belongs to local Steve Carr, who finished his in just 78 seconds. Once freed from his restraints, Mr. Carr rose triumphant and cream-covered above his plate and thrust his hands into the air, assuming the position and attitude of a WWF champion. The crowd was elated (and hungry). The festival concludes with a fireworks beach picnic at the Casa Marina, with proceeds to benefit the local VNA Hospice.
Mr. 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 daunting work arranging such an event, and planning starts early. Mr. Sloan, Mr. Pierson and a team of paid staff and volunteers work on securing vendors, sponsors and event ideas almost a year in advance. It’s not exactly a moneymaker, either.
Still, Mr. 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.” ¦
— *Florida Weekly is not responsible for tourists being bitten by residents of Key West, or residents of any other Key, or particularly angry pie enthusiasts of unknown origin.