The History of Green Key Lime Pie

The History of Green Key Lime Pie - A piece of cake on a plate - Key lime pie
The untrained eye can’t tell in black and white… but this pie is green with envy of natural Key lime pies. CONTRIBUTED

Residents of the Florida Keys know Key lime pie is yellow, but if you follow #keylimepie on Instagram or find yourself lost in the sweet section of a Las Vegas buffet, you are likely to encounter an unsightly, green, glowing dessert claiming to be Florida’s official pie. Unsuspecting diners grab a serving with the belief they are about to ingest a slice of paradise, as visiting Conchs turn up their noses in disgust and wonder, “How did such an atrocity come to be?” Let’s journey back into The Key Lime Pie Hole and discover the history of green Key lime pie.

Our story starts with a color problem. Persian Limes (Citrus x latifolia) and Key limes (Citrus x aurantifolia) are green when they first appear on the tree, and stay green as they start to mature. When limes reach peak ripeness, their color starts to change, and both Key limes and Persian limes turn yellow. This is common knowledge if you have a lime tree growing in your yard, but yellow limes are something grocery store shoppers rarely, if ever, encounter.

Limes grow in warm climates, so most of the country consumes limes shipped from out of state. Shipped limes are picked before peak ripeness while green, and though this sacrifices flavor and juice yield, it extends shelf life, minimalizes denting and bruising, and helps people tell them apart from lemons. The practice has created a nation of consumers who believe limes are green and lemons (which are shipped before peak ripeness too) are yellow. This belief paved the way for the green goblin on the Vegas buffet.

Key lime pie is yellow, but the color has nothing to do with the fruit or its juice – the rich yellow color comes from egg yolks. The Works Project Administration did a fine job marketing Key lime pie as a cultural treat, and when the Overseas Highway finally provided a continuous run from Miami to Key West in 1938, roadside diners catering to tourists opened, and Key lime pie became mandatory fare. This is when wary tourists who knew limes were green believed they were being duped when yellow pie was served. Some thought there had been a mix-up with their order, and many assumed they were being served lemon pie. Most visitors had never seen yellow limes before, and upon learning these were the limes that made their yellow pie, they assumed the juice was responsible for the color and misconceptions started to spread.

Limited commercial availability of real Key limes made them a bit of a delicacy. The earliest reference I’ve found to the greening of Key lime pie appeared in a 1941 Miami Herald story in which columnist Helen Muir describes a pie man who had friends visiting from New England yearning for a taste of local lime pie. With no limes available, the man created a pie with lemons and a little green food coloring. His friends raved about the dessert and claimed “a lemon pie never tasted that good in a million years.“ Visitors returning from the Keys with real Key limes followed suit, and often added green food coloring to their pies so guests didn’t think they were being served an inferior lemon pie. Florida restaurants joined the food coloring game for similar reasons, and by 1959, green lime pie was preferred by people like Mrs. M. S. of Tampa who wrote to the Tampa Bay Times food editor, “I am a new resident and would appreciate a recipe for green lime pie which does not look like lemon pie.”

The green Key lime pie craze swept the nation, with recipes spreading from Atlanta to Baltimore to Detroit and beyond. Eventually, the Conchs had enough and let the world know how they felt. A 1966 Miami Herald headline read “Green Key Lime Pie? – NEVER!” and ever since the Conchs drew a line in the sand, visiting food writers have taken great pleasure in shaming anyone who dares to add green coloring to the native dessert. The backlash reached a frenzy in 1980, but green Key lime pie refused to die. Even Publix joined the green shaming game with a 1998 advertisement saying “green Key lime pie is about as close to authentic as Key West is to Katmandu,” yet 21 years later, the green glow of artificially colored Key lime pies on Instagram and Las Vegas buffets persists.

They say, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” I’m pleased to announce that two Key West establishments are bringing green Key lime pie back, but they are not using a single drop of food coloring to do it. These Key lime pies are environmentally green, and a portion of proceeds from every slice you enjoy will help plant a new Key lime tree in the Florida Keys. Mary Ellen’s Bar is offering hand-made, small batch, gourmet Key Lime Pie Holes made by yours truly. Smokin’ Tuna Saloon has enrolled several Key lime menu items for the cause, including a killer Key lime pie. Stop in and enjoy them both frequently. Green Key lime pie has been a scourge to our society for nearly 80 years, but finally, there is a green Key lime pie that everybody in The Florida Keys can get behind.

Love & Limes!

David Sloan researches intriguing stories from Key West's past to share island history people might not hear on the Conch Train.