I made my first Key lime pie as a baker in Texas at 16. The experience did nothing but make my fingers taste good. No “aha” moment.My journey down “The Key Lime Pie Hole”didn’t start until two decades later, when I moved to Key West and went searching for ghosts at The Curry Mansion Inn. I didn’t find any spirits, but what I did find changed my life. Perched on the kitchen counter were several recipe cards claiming the first Key lime pie was first created — in the kitchen where I was standing — by a woman named“Aunt Sally.”The problem was that Aunt Sally was a mystery: nobody knew her identity or anything about her. I love tracing legends back to their origins, so down The Key Lime Pie Hole I went.
The legend of Aunt Sally has been around for a while. The first written account of her existence I found appears in Earl Adams’ “Do You Know” column (Key West Citizen: July 6, 1986). He writes, “A black woman, who was known as ‘Aunt Sally’ is said to have prepared the recipe for real Key lime pie. She was employed as a cook by William Curry.” I put out feelers on social media to see if anyone heard of Aunt Sally prior to this. Peggy Davis responded that she first heard of Sally and her Key lime pie connection when passing through town as a “Navy brat” in 1949.
But stories don’t help with identity. If Aunt Sally made the first pie, it would have been sometime between 1856, when Gail Borden’s process for sweetened condensed milk was first patented, and the late 1920s to early 1930s, when mentions of the pie started to appear in print. I went through every page of every census looking for Sally, but nobody fit the bill.
My Dad is a genealogist. I reached out to him for help, and 30 minutes later he told me he found her. Aunt Sally was Sarah Jane Lowe Curry. My excitement turned to disappointment. I was looking for Sally, not Sarah. That’s when my dad explained Sally was a nickname for Sarah, more common 100 years ago, but still in play today. He went on to show me that Sarah Curry was “aunt” to 14 of William Curry’s grandchildren. She lived next door to the mansion, and she was married to William’s son Charles. Charles was a clerk at Curry & Sons, a chandlery that just happened to sell the ingredients required to make Key lime pie.
What about Sally being a black cook? Sarah Curry was white Bahamian. I’ve seen several cases where people assume Bahamian means black,and race changes as a story is retold. I believe that is the case here. Our pieced-together solution may not create an airtight puzzle, but the important pieces fit like a glove. So until we track down an 1887 Instagram post ofSarah Curry holding a Key lime pie with the caption: “Look what I’m having for breakfast, bitches!” we’ll just say that we’re pretty sure we found Aunt Sally, the originator. And then we’ll go eat some Key lime pie.