Ari’s Pick: Key Lime Pie

A taste of southern Florida at Zingerman’s Southside
Overhead partial view of a whole Key Lime Pie on a marble surface with slices of limes

A classic of the Florida Keys that relies on the distinctive juice of the Key Lime, Key Lime Pie became the official state pie of Florida in the summer of 2006. While Florida politics have been rather … controversial in recent years, Key Lime Pie seems like something people could come together around. Most everyone I’ve met seems to love it!

What we now call Key limes likely originated many centuries ago in Malaysia. They are also known around the world as West Indian limes, Mexican limes, Bartender’s limes, or Omani limes. Culinary historians believe they came to the Americas with Spanish invaders sometime in the 16th century. What’s Cooking in America says, “Key limes look like confused lemons, as they are smaller than a golf ball with yellow-green skin that is sometimes splotched with brown.” They’re smaller, seedier, and have a much bigger aroma than the much greener and larger Persian limes you might purchase at the supermarket.

The History of Key Lime Pie

Looking back in culinary history, Key Lime Pie seems somewhat reminiscent of the old British/Colonial American versions of vinegar pie, and also the use of lemon curd, or “lemon cheese” for filling tarts and pies. There are stories of Key Lime Pie being served in the late 19th century, but the first known written recipes don’t show up until shortly before WWII in the 1930s. Stella Parks, writing in BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, shares some of the pie’s history:

The dessert wasn’t created in the Sunshine State, but by the Borden condensed milk company in New York City. Thanks to a wave of advertising by the condensed milk company, the recipe for Magic Lemon Cream Pie most likely made its way to Florida sometime in the 1930s and ’40s. There canny pie makers modified the recipe, swapping lemons for Key West’s sweet-tart limes.

Southern Living Magazine tells a slightly different story:

Despite the dessert’s immediate name recognition, there’s certainly no shortage of theories surrounding its origin or its ingredients. No one can pinpoint when lime pie first showed up in the Keys. Developed by early Bahamian settlers, Key lime pie appears to have been around for more than 100 years. Debating the history, though, is child’s play compared to the arguments that can erupt over the mechanics of the pie. … You could probably incite a riot discussing Key lime pie’s topping and crust…

Overhead view of a Key Lime on a marble surface, sliced into 8 pieces, with one of them on a plate mostly out of view

An Essential Ingredient

Wherever you land on all of the above, one thing that’s universally agreed on is that condensed milk is critical to the quality of a Key Lime Pie—essential to its existential being. In its modern canned form, condensed milk is an industrial innovation, but in practice, goes back centuries. The Tatars—the native people of the same Crimean peninsula that’s now front and center in Russia’s violent efforts to take over Ukraine—have records of it in the late 13th century. (Here’s a good essay by Timothy Snyder on the fascinating, often tragic, history of the Crimean Tatars.)

Nicolas Appert, the innovative French druggist who was the first to figure out how to effectively can sardines, came up with a way to condense (and preserve) milk early in the 19th century. Gail Borden Jr. figured out an even more effective process and rolled it out commercially in 1853. Previously, fresh milk could not be kept for more than a day or so (other than in the form of cheese). Demand for condensed milk boomed during the Civil War. It became particularly popular in the Florida Keys—being well off the beaten track and far from anyone’s dairy farms, the islands didn’t have a regular supply of fresh milk until the 1930s.

At the Bakehouse, we do indeed use only real Key lime juice and plenty of condensed milk. The citrusy custard, sitting atop the graham cracker crust, makes for some pretty compelling eating. Serve a slice of Key Lime Pie with whipped cream, if you like. Pick up a whole pie to serve for dinner at your house. You’ll brighten a dark winter day and enjoy some wonderfully tart, sweet, ethereal and excellent eating!


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Ari Weinzweig
Co-Founding Partner at Zingerman's | + posts

In 1982, Ari Weinzweig, along with his partner Paul Saginaw, founded Zingerman’s Delicatessen with a $20,000 bank loan, a Russian History degree from the University of Michigan, 4 years of experience washing dishes, cooking and managing in restaurant kitchens and chutzpah from his hometown of Chicago. They opened the doors with 2 employees and a small selection of specialty foods and exceptional sandwiches.

Today, Zingerman’s Delicatessen is a nationally renowned food icon and the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses has grown to 10 businesses with over 750 employees and over $55 million in annual revenue. Aside from the Delicatessen, these businesses include Zingerman’s Bakehouse, Coffee Company, Creamery, Roadhouse, Mail Order, ZingTrain, Candy Manufactory, Cornman Farms and a Korean restaurant that is scheduled to open in 2016. No two businesses in the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses are alike but they all share the same Vision and Guiding Principles and deliver “The Zingerman’s Experience” with passion and commitment.

Besides being the Co-Founding Partner and being actively engaged in some aspect of the day-to-day operations and governance of nearly every business in the Zingerman’s Community, Ari Weinzweig is also a prolific writer. His most recent publications are the first 4 of his 6 book series Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading Series: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business (Part 1), Being a Better Leader (Part 2), Managing Ourselves (Part 3) and the newly-released Part 4, The Power of Beliefs in Business. Earlier books include the Zingerman’s Guides to Giving Great Service, Better Bacon, Good Eating, Good Olive Oil, Good Vinegar and Good Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Ari regularly travels across the country (and world) on behalf of ZingTrain, teaching organizations and businesses about Zingerman’s approach to business. He is a sought-after Keynote speaker, having delivered keynotes for Inc. 500, Microsoft Expo Spring Conference, Great Game of Business Gathering of Games, Positive Business Conference at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, American Society for Quality (ASQ), and the American Cheese Society. Most recently, Ari and Paul Saginaw were invited to address an audience of 50,000 for the University of Michigan 2015 Spring Commencement.

One of Zingerman’s Guiding Principles is being an active part of the community and in 1988, Zingerman’s was instrumental in the founding of Food Gatherers, a food rescue program that delivers over 5 million pounds of food each year to the hungry residents of Washtenaw county. Every year Zingerman’s donates 10% of its previous years profits to local community organizations and non-profits. Ari has served on the board of The Ark, the longest continuously operating folk music venue in America.

Over the decades, the Zingerman’s founding partners have consistently been the recipients of public recognition from a variety of diverse organizations. In April 1995, Ari and Paul were awarded the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County’s first Humanitarian Award. In 2006, Ari was recognized as one of the “Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America” by the James Beard Foundation. In 2007, Ari and Paul were presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from Bon Appetit magazine for their work in the food industry. Ari was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Cheese Society in 2014. And Ari’s book, Building a Great Business was on Inc. magazine’s list of Best Books for Business Leaders.

Notwithstanding the awards, being engaged on a daily basis in the work of 10 businesses and 21 partners, writing books on business and in-depth articles on food for the Zingerman’s newsletter, Ari finds time to be a voracious reader. He acquires and reads more books than he can find room for. Ari might soon find himself the owner of the largest collection of Anarchist books in Ann Arbor outside the Labadie collection at the University of Michigan library!

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