Our History Matters: Savoring the sweet history of Florida citrus this holiday season

This time of year, sugar plums dance through our heads and cookies await St. Nick. We mark our shorter and cooler days with tasty treats and seasonal favorites.

In the Sunshine State, winter brings us sweet, juicy citrus fruits and desserts, such as sour orange pies, ambrosia salads and Key lime pie.

Our thoughts turn most of all to Florida’s official pie — the Key lime pie.

Let us take a look back at a slice of history involving this Florida favorite.

The pie receives its name from the Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) — a small tart lime. Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought the fruit to the Americas in the 1500s. The fruit took off in Florida’s subtropical landscape.

Major Robert Gamble — who established Gamble Plantation near Ellenton — noted in an agriculture circular of 1851, “The fruit culture of my immediate district is confined to the production of oranges, lemons, limes, guavas, banana, pineapples, coconuts, etc.”

By the late-1800s, growers cultivated Key lime groves from central Florida to the Keys.

As for the pie itself, many legends on the recipe’s origins float around the Florida Keys.

One theory credits the Sunshine State’s fishing industry. Sponge harvesters in the mid-1800s worked on boats for days at a time traveling up and down the Gulf coast. The fishermen would carry foods that would not spoil — like sweetened condensed milk cans.

David Sloan in “The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook” (2017) describes the fishermen’s recipe, “Soak stale bread in canned condensed milk, and then top with eggs gathered from the islands — wild bird or turtle — and squeeze lime juice on top. Stirred and allowed to sit, the mixture gelled atop the bread.”

A more popular theory in Key West involves millionaire William Curry — a nephew of Manatee Village’s Captain John Curry. Most stories claim that Curry’s cook — known as “Aunt Sally” — invented the recipe around the 1890s. Other accounts credit the recipe to Sarah Jane Lowe, the wife of William’s oldest son Charles.

Others argue that this citrus staple did not originate in the Sunshine State at all. Instead, the recipe emerged from a 1930s marketing ploy. Pastry chef Stella suggests in her book “BraveTart” (2017) that the Borden Condensed Milk Company in New York City invented the pie to sell more of their product.

We may never know which story is true, but each one provides us with a glimpse into the kitchens of past Floridians. These stories tell us about traditional foods, cooking methods, and the people behind them.

Without them, we would know less about Florida’s rich culinary history.

So no matter how you slice the pie this holiday season, take a minute to savor the sweet history of Florida citrus.

If you would like to take your love for food to the next level, Florida Maritime Museum’s Folk School offers a variety of traditional skills classes.

Also, don’t miss The Greek Communities of Tarpon Springs and the Bahamas on exhibit at the Florida Maritime Museum until Feb. 2, 2019.

For more information on the Florida Maritime Museum or Folk School at Florida Maritime Museum, visit floridamaritimemuseum.org or call 941-708-6120. The Museum is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Casey Wooster, curator of the Florida Maritime Museum, grew up in Florida and treasures the unique history and foods of our great state. Our History Matters is an occasional series published in the Bradenton Herald.