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It’s a Florida dessert drama: strawberry shortcake vs. Key lime pie

bowl of strawberry shortcake with whipped cream on one side, a slice of Key lime pie on the other
shortcake - Rick Brunson, WUSF Public Media / Key lime pie - WLRN
Strawberry shortcake has been named Florida's state dessert, arguing backers of Key lime pie.

A new law that Gov. DeSantis signed this week at the Plant City Strawberry Fest designates strawberry shortcake as the official state dessert. That's leaving a tart taste in the mouths of Key lime pie backers.

On Monday, Bill Bowers was doing what he has done for decades — serving bowls of sweet red strawberry shortcake to hundreds of people at the Transforming Life Church booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City.

A day later he was doing the same thing — with one big difference. He was now serving Florida’s official state dessert.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 1006 into law at the festival on Monday, officially designating shortcake made with Florida strawberries and topped with whipped cream from Florida dairies as the official dessert of the Sunshine State.

Bowers said the recognition by the governor and state Legislature was gratifying.

“This is our 43rd year here at the Strawberry Festival,“ Bowers said. “We’ve been doing this since 1979. So, we have served literally millions of shortcakes. This puts us on the map, it’s a recognition of what we do, and it means so much. Especially to the local economy.“

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City and Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, is designed to boost the state’s $1 billion strawberry industry. It’s a big win for growers in the Plant City area, which boasts 10,000 acres that yield 75% of the nation’s winter strawberry crop.

During the 11-day Strawberry Festival, more than 200,000 shortcakes are served, according to festival officials. At the Transforming Life Church booth — one of three shortcake vendors at the festival — they sell about 2,600 bowls of the sweet dessert during the week and about 4,000 on the weekends, Pastor Kyle Judah said.

man with backwards hat on puts strawberries into a bowl while woman on right wearing an apron ladles them from a bucket in front of her
Rick Brunson
WUSF Public Media
Kyle Judah, left, the pastor of Transforming Life Church in Plant City, works with a volunteer at the church’s booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival to make about 2,600 servings of strawberry shortcake each day.

One of those customers on Tuesday was Carolyn Holst of Tampa, who was visiting the festival for the first time with her sons Joseph and Nick and friend Anthony Sulinski of Brooksville. Holst was digging into her bowl of shortcake — a small brick of yellow cake, topped with a red cascade of berries and a small mountain of whipped cream.

“It’s absolutely amazing,“ Holst said. “The whipped cream is my favorite. It’s awesome. And getting down to the cake is just delicious.“

But not everyone is smacking their lips about strawberry shortcake achieving its vaunted new status as the state’s official dessert. Fans of Key lime pie — designated by the Florida Legislature as the official state pie in 2006 — say their iconic dessert is getting snubbed. And they're not isolated to the Keys.

Mike Martin, founder of Mike’s Pies in Tampa, which recently marked 30 years in business, was blunt.

“It’s an outrage. I’m very disappointed. It’s ridiculous,“ he said, noting that his company sells hundreds of thousands of pies each year to restaurants and retailers in 48 states. “Key lime pies are our number one seller. It’s a third of our business.

“When we show up at food shows around the country, people ask for a Key lime pie from Florida, not strawberry shortcake. I’m just astounded. The Key lime pie is not the official dessert of Florida? That’s embarrassing.“

circular Key lime dessert on graham crack crust next to a brûléed meringue
Rick Brunson
WUSF Public Media
Ulele restaurant in Tampa makes a Key West Key Lime Stack with brûléed meringue - a variation on the popular pie that has reigned for generations in the minds of many Floridians as the state’s iconic “king of desserts.“

At Tampa’s Ulele restaurant, Executive Chef Patrick Quakenbush says Key lime pie and Plant City strawberry shortcake are both showcased on the menu — especially this time of year as the Easter season nears.

Quakenbush puts a lighter spin on the traditional Key lime pie with Ulele’s version of a Key West Key Lime Stack with brûléed meringue, folding whipped cream into the custard atop a graham cracker crust to achieve a palate-pleasing combination of tartness and sweetness.

Quakenbush acknowledged that when he travels around the world in culinary circles, Florida is more often identified with Key lime pie than strawberry shortcake, but he says there’s room for both and there shouldn’t be a battle over the two.

“We need to share,“ Quakenbush said. “But if you’re asking my personal opinion, I think the king of desserts here in Florida would be the Key lime pie. Not to say that strawberry shortcake isn’t awesome, because it is.“

But down south in Key West, the namesake city where the famous pie was born about 130 years ago, the battle is definitely brewing. Key West Vice Mayor Sam Kaufman, author David Sloan, and chef/rum distiller Paul Menta have formed the Conch Republic Key Lime Pie Council — “partners in lime“ — to fight back against what they see as another insult from Tallahassee.

The council has pressed surrounding municipal governments — such as in Monroe County — to take a stand and make the Key lime pie the official dessert of their jurisdictions. Key West city commissioners unanimously approved a similar measure recently.

Sloan, Menta, and Kaufman all say they support and have nothing against the state’s strawberry growers. They just wish the Legislature and governor had designated a “state cake“ instead of vaulting strawberry shortcake past Key lime pie to official “state dessert“ status.

For Kaufman, the issue is about protecting Florida’s tourism industry.

“There’s a real fun side to this — the competition between strawberry shortcake and Key lime pie,“ Kaufman said. “But there’s a serious side as well. Key lime pie is a draw to why people are coming here. All of our servers who work in the restaurants appreciate the fact that visitors to Florida are looking for Key lime pie.“

Menta added, “Our primary thing down here, besides bringing up our kids and making sure everyone has a place to live in the Florida Keys, is tourism. And tourism for us is based partly on Key lime pie because it’s a lifestyle and a state of mind.

“If you’re in Alaska and you have a slice of Key lime pie, suddenly it gets a little warmer, you feel a little gritty thing between your toes that feels like sand, and all of a sudden, life’s a lot better because you’re thinking of the Florida Keys and Key West.“

And the battle has gone online. The council’s Change.org petition calling for the Legislature to split the title of Florida’s official dessert between both dishes has received over 7,000 signatures.

It also says, if Plant City contests such a proposal, the matter can be settled by a duel at high noon between the cities’ vice mayors — armed only with their respective city’s signature dessert.

Rick Brunson is a senior instructor at the University of Central Florida Nicholson School of Communication and Media.

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