A Berry Big Debate: Florida’s State Dessert

Lost in the seemingly endless culture wars of Tallahassee is a far more innocuous story. Among the mountains of bills filed by state representatives and senators, it seems to grab the attention of the average Floridian in a way that most political issues simply cannot.

I’m referring to the Florida Legislature’s plan to make strawberry shortcake the official dessert of the state of Florida. Though this bill seems to be destined to become law, a growing group of concerned citizens are advocating for an alternative option: Key lime pie. 

That’s right — Key lime pie and strawberry shortcake appear to be headed toward a nasty spat. Unless, of course, a compromise can be brokered.

Now, before we dive into this heated debate, let’s learn some things about the desserts in question and the fruits they are composed of.

Key limes, despite their name, are not native to the Keys. They eventually became naturalized after the Great Frost destroyed lemon farms during the winter of 1894-1895. They then became a major product until the 1926 Miami Hurricane destroyed nearly every Key lime tree, after which the Key limes were replaced with Persian limes. 

While Key limes are not grown commercially in Florida, Key lime juice is widely available in stores today, and the fruit has become widely integrated into South Florida’s culture. Since 2002, Key limes have even had their own Key Lime Festival held around July 4 each year for five days.

Of the same token, when one hears ‘Florida,’ Key lime pie tends to come to mind. Key lime pie has a mysterious origin, but what we know for sure is that it was invented in Florida. The oldest written recipe that we have is one published in the Miami Herald in 1939 by a “Mrs. L.E. Blackwell.” She claimed it was over 50 years old, putting the recipe’s origin date at sometime before 1889.

Going beyond 1889, the waters of history get a bit murky. There are two main possibilities for who invented Key lime pie: either an enigmatic woman called ‘Aunt Sally’ or sponge fishermen with the ingredients on their boat — a less likely theory.

Those ties to the Miami Herald may explain why their editorial board published a misleading piece disparaging attempts to make strawberry shortcake the state dessert, in which the publication claimed that Key lime pie already was the state dessert. Although Key lime pie is the state pie, no confectionary delight holds the title of Florida’s state dessert. A bit odd for a state with a state flower (orange blossom), a state wildflower (coreopsis), and even a state honey (tupelo).

Meanwhile, strawberries — perfected in France — are one of Florida’s biggest exports. During the winter, most American-made strawberries are grown in Florida. Hillsborough County alone produces over 15% of the annual U.S. strawberry production. 

Not to be outdone by the Key Lime Festival, Plant City — the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World” — is host each year to the Florida Strawberry Festival. Celebrated by the town since 1930, this elaborate 11-day affair consists of carnival rides, concerts and great food, all held in honor of the engine of the local economy.

Strawberry shortcake itself is less Floridian as it was primarily influenced by the English who invented it around 1588, and the French, who refined it in the 19th century. It is an extremely popular dessert across the U.S., with National Strawberry Shortcake Day falling every June 14.

Considering this, how can we pick which dish should be Florida’s official dessert? 

To find out what the people want, I informally polled 49 people, Floridians and out-of-staters alike. The results were resounding. A supermajority, well within the margin of error, chose Key lime pie as their preferred Florida state dessert. More people choose ‘both’ or ‘none’ than they did strawberry shortcake.

Pie chart created by Charles Horowitz, Florida Political Review.

Yet, many simply do not know about the importance of strawberries to Northern and Central Florida. Key lime pie might be South Florida’s best-known treat, but strawberries are a $1 billion Floridian economic powerhouse.

So, I propose a compromise. Strawberry shortcake becomes the state cake while Key lime pie remains the state pie. No one delicacy will be crowned “state dessert,” but the importance of each will still be recognized.

It turns out that my compromise is an idea that others have had as well. In an interview with Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, she pointed out that Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, suggested the idea in committee, which Bartleman supports.

However, this idea will probably not become law. Instead, it appears far more likely that strawberry shortcake shall become the official state dessert of Florida. 

Recently, both the Senate Rules and Agriculture committees lent strawberry shortcake unanimous support and with that kind of support, it seems like it is only a matter of time until the bill is on an easy path to being signed into law.

Some may wonder why time is even being devoted to this cause when Floridians are facing other issues, including rising housing costs, climate change and an ever-present pandemic; Bartleman has the perfect answer to this concern. 

“Agriculture is one of the biggest economic drivers in Florida,” she stated, and this bill will bring “much-needed attention to the Florida strawberry.”

Bartleman said she will support the bill as it is currently written if (or rather when) it comes to a final vote.

Though I wish a compromise could be passed, this bill will still be a major win for Florida no matter which dessert is elevated to Florida’s official dessert. Communities will gain revenue and Florida will be in the news for something other than partisan tirades and Florida man’s latest adventures — surely a good thing for all of us.

As for my favorite? I personally prefer Key lime pie. Its unique flavor and graham cracker crust (when made correctly) is something that simply cannot be equated with any other dessert.

When posed the same question, Bartleman admitted to “liking them both equally.” A commendable stance in a legislature where so many issues — desserts included — lead to lines being drawn in the official Florida Myakka fine sand.

Check out other recent articles from Florida Political Review here.

Featured image: While writing this piece, your staff writer became hungry for both strawberries and Key lime pie. Image by Charles and Michael Horowitz.

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