Key Lime Pie Has Pucker Power

Key West's tasty lime trademark rates among the `rich and famous'. FOOD

AH.... 80 degree sunny weather, blue-green water, palm trees. Key West is a mecca this season for vacationers avoiding the hurricane-stricken Caribbean and the cold, cold North. For local restaurants here, more tourism means more business and - inevitably - more Key lime pie.

``Key lime pie represents the sauciness of Key West,'' says John Baratte, president of InterCulinary Center in Miami. You haven't ``done Key West,'' say locals, until you've visited Sloppy Joe's (Ernest Hemingway's hangout), seen the sun set from Mallory Pier, tasted conch fritters, and indulged in Key lime pie.

The tangy-sweet, traditional dessert is a mixture of Key lime juice, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk put into a pie shell, chilled, and topped with meringue.

Here at the renowned Pier House Restaurant, executive chef Michael Kulow talks about the rich and famous pie as he looks out to where the Atlantic Ocean mingles with the Gulf of Mexico.

The Pier House has won various awards for its Key lime pie topped with meringue ``this thick,'' says Chef Kulow measuring three inches in the air with his fingers (see recipe). At 1,000 servings a week, the Pier House relinquishes its recipe to many patrons, says Mr. Kulow. Every recipe is basically the same, he says, with added twists.

Contrary to what some Yankee vacationers might think, real Key lime pie isn't just a lime pie popular in Florida's Keys: It's a pie made with juice of the Key lime (Citrus Avrantifolia). About the size of a golf ball, the Key lime is yellow and packs a more tart taste than the familiar Persian lime found in most grocery stores.

Key limes are not native to Florida; they originated in India and grow in subtropical regions. Those who don't have access to fresh Key limes in Florida often use bottled Key lime juice. Of course the pie can be made with Persian lime juice, says Kulow, but it's important to a lot of people, especially here, to have ``the real thing.''

But the ``real thing'' hasn't flourished in groves here since a hurricane swept through the Keys in 1936. ``Local people are the ones who get a hold of Key limes,'' says Kulow - they have trees in their back yards.

Still, the Key lime has never bounced back with much commercial success. ``There isn't that much of a market,'' says Rick Biddle, owner of the Key West Lime Juice Factory. And ``where they grow well, the land is much too expensive. ... Ninety-five percent of all limes are south of Miami.'' Many of the limes are imported from Central and South America.

To some farmers, Key limes just aren't worth the effort. ``They're horrible to pick - they have thorns,'' says Robert Moehling, a grower and seller of Key limes and other tropical fruit in Homestead, Fla. A sign at his unassuming fruit stand on the way to the Florida Everglades advertises ``Key Lime Shakes.'' ``They're relatively easy to grow,'' he says, but ``they don't have a lot of shelf life,'' and because of the thorns, ``you have to harvest them from the ground'' after they've dropped off.

Gina Barker, a resident of Sugarloaf Key, makes her pies with freshly squeezed Key limes. ``The Key Lime tree is really abundant,'' she says, estimating that her backyard tree produced nearly 1,000 limes one season. But can you really taste the difference?

``There's a big difference,'' insists Louie Condos, owner of Captain Bob's World Famous Shrimp Dock, which also has won several Key lime pie contests. ``A lime is a lime is a lime is a lime,'' he says, but if you're comparing limes, the tartness in the Key lime is unquestionably distinguishable. And ``more tart'' doesn't mean bitter, points out John Baratte. Fresh Key lime juice especially has a deeper, stronger flavor, he says.

Natalie Dupree, well-known cookbook author and television hostess, argues that Key limes may be more tart, but when it comes down to the pie, people cannot tell the difference. After extensive taste testing with Key limes and Persian limes picked from the same grove at the same time, ``we could not tell the difference,'' says Ms. Dupree.

For the best taste, Ms. Dupree recommends freshly squeezed juice, no matter what the lime. ``If you had to choose bottled [Key lime] juice,'' she says, ``you'd be better off buying fresh Persian limes.'' She adds: ``Key lime is a bit of a pretension.''

A pretension to some, perhaps, but a tradition to pie purists. They are sensitive to the faux pie slices served in the name of Key lime. ``I've sent them back in New York,'' says Mr. Baratte of the InterCulinary Center, speaking of Key lime pie counterfeits sporting gelatine fillings, fake lime flavor, even food coloring.

``Key lime pie is never, never green,'' says Anne McDuffie, food editor at the Tampa Tribune, who says the volatile oils in the rind of the key lime give it a distinctive flavor. It's the egg yolk that gives the pie its yellow color. ``When I see green things in restaurants, they say they use coloring `because tourists want it.' I've never heard a tourist ask for green Key lime pie. It's revolting!'' she laments.

The pie is said to have originated around the time of the US Civil War, when condensed milk stormed the market. Cooks combined it with what was available on the islands - Key limes, sugar, and egg yolks in a pie shell. The egg whites went into meringue, which meant that all ingredients were put to use.

Using fresh Key lime juice is a given - if possible. But there are other pie factors people side with: traditional pie crust vs. graham cracker crust; meringue topping vs. whipped cream vs. mixing the meringue into the filling, or nothing at all.

Kelly LaComb, former coordinator of the annual Hemingway Days festival in Key West, sees a trend away from meringue. In the 1989 Key lime pie contest, in which entrants ranged ``from old-class chefs to Bahamian women,'' the majority of those who placed in the top crowned their pie with whipped cream, Mr. LaComb says. ``Most people I know like whipped cream. Tourists probably don't know any better,'' he says frankly.

Food editor McDuffie says she likes to fold the meringue into the filling because it makes a lighter pie. She tops it with whipped cream, with ``twirls of lime rind or candied violet on top of that.'' She also fancies a chocolate-crumb crust.

``Meringue is traditional; whipped cream is more contemporary,'' Baratte says. Old Key West would make the pie with a regular pie crust and meringue, he says.

Philip Heimer, assistant chef at the Pier House who makes about 70 Key lime pies a week, sides with tradition: ``You've got to have the meringue,'' he says ``it takes the bite off the lime.''

These companies offer Key Lime juice by mail:

Floribbean, Miami InterCulinary Center, 5430 Sunset Dr., Miami, FL 33143 ($10.50 for two 12-ounce bottles, plus shipping). They boast of being the ``only'' company bottling 100 percent Key lime juice, with no preservatives.

Nellie and Joe's, PO Box 2368, Key West, FL 33045 ($10.95 for two 16-ounce bottles, includes shipping).

Key West Lime Juice Factory, 14258 South West 139th Ct., Miami, FL 33186 ($7.80 for two 16-ounce bottles, includes shipping).

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