Why The Origin Of Key Lime Pie Is So Contentious

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It might have won James Beard's Foundation Book Award in 2018 in the Baking and Desserts category and been a New York Times bestseller, but Stella Parks' "BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts," which was considered to be the "most groundbreaking book on baking in years" by Saveur, has caused quite a bit of controversy in the category of Key Lime Pies

In her book, which is seen as a comprehensive look at America's most iconic desserts, including the citrusy favorite, Parks retells the story of millionaire William Curry and his family, who had "swooned over a pie made by their family cook," saying that the chef had created "an unusual concoction using canned milk and limes." She then debunks the tale, saying there is nothing in any cooking archives that refers to Key Lime Pie before 1949 — and not only that. Parks also points out that no recipe for Key Lime Pie can be found in any longtime, Florida heritage cookbooks.

The recipe for Key Lime Pie is too precise to be invented in a home kitchen

Stella Parks wrote that she was hard put to find any recipes that pointed to the origins of Key Lime Pie as it was being told. As she put it, "not a single one called for limes, condensed milk, or graham crackers, much less all three." She also posits that while the original version of lemon meringue pie may have come from Key West, Key Lime appears to have been a marketing creation by Borden Dairy.

The cookbook author then refers to a Magic Lemon Cream Pie, which is made almost the same way a Key Lime pie would have been but for the use of lemons instead of limes. And because of the amounts of citrus acid in lemon or lime juice being added to condensed milk were so precise, Parks deduces that the recipe is one only a food scientist could come up with. 

At the end of the day, she believes the iconic recipe was just another way to sell more condensed milk, per Food & Wine.

Key West residents are up in arms over Stella Park's theory

It would be safe to say that Parks got on the wrong side of Key West residents over her assertion that Key Lime Pie wasn't what it appeared. To prove it, local cookbook author David Sloan — who wrote "The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook" — produced a recipe that dated back to 1939, and he further claimed the cook, who had been named "Aunt Sally" was the real deal. Per Vice, Sloan also produced a newspaper clipping that referred to a lime pie which goes back to January 1926. "Sing on about Borden, Stella. We have proof from 1926 that you are wrong," Sloan was quoted as saying.

But is she? Parks said, "Our understanding of history is only as complete as our documentation, and that understanding should evolve as new sources are uncovered ... 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."

Parks also says that if Sloan can find any evidence that Key Lime Pie came from Florida, she said she would "celebrate the discovery."