Horrors!

04.30.14

Limepocalypse! Inside the Great Lime Shortage of 2014

Tacos and guacamole with lemon? Margaritas with…citrus juice? No key lime pie? That’s what we’re facing after disease, storms, and even drug cartels decimated this year’s crop.

Even Bette Midler is making sacrifices.

“Have you heard about the extreme lime shortage?” she asked Twitter this weekend. “I can cut back on margaritas but if there’s an olive shortage I’m taking to the streets!”

When no less a queen than the Divine Miss M must adjust to a lime-less lifestyle, it’s clear the citrus crisis has reached its peak. But really, just imagine living in a world without limes. This isn’t the dystopian Orwellian future. This is much worse. Think all-tequila margaritas, carne asada tacos spritzed with lemon, key lime pies that are mounds of crust and nothing more. This is the limepocalypse. Limeageddon. A veritable limetastrophe. Who will survive such a bleak hell?

Like all other major disasters in life, this one doesn’t feel real until it happens to you. Or to people you expect to provide products you desperately need. For your margaritas. And mojitos. So what’s happened to our precious green gold? Crops were severely diminished because of a gnarly storm in Mexico, where 97 percent of U.S. limes are grown, which pushed back the harvest season. Add to that the citrus disease Huanglongbing, which further devastated crops,  and drug cartels that are looting supplies, and the price of limes is higher than they’ve ever been.

The publicity’s been rampant for weeks, but the statistics bear fruit (sorry). According the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average advertised price for limes on April 4 was 56 cents each, compared to last year’s more manageable 31 cents.

A quarter doesn’t seem like much, but hysteria feeds on a strict diet of more hysteria. Epicurious published an infographic illustrating who’s vulnerable to becoming a lime shortage victim. Short answer for you worrywarts: We’re all victims. Except, of course, for smug commenter JWalker5, who claims he’s got the biggest you-know-what right in his own backyard. Lime trees win bragging rights. This is the new normal.

Grub Street reported that limes are in limited use in popular and apocalyptic-sounding drinking establishments such as Mother’s Ruin and The Dead Rabbit, where customers have to request them specifically as garnish. The New York Post found a bar owner who admitted to “lime looting,” which is exactly like real looting, except it’s sort of funny because haha, it’s only fruit, right?

But with Cinco de Mayo looming, the biggest question on the media’s mind is what will happen to the most beloved of all blended beverages, the margarita. Restaurants around the country aren’t ashamed to admit they’re cutting their lime juice with lemon juice (the equivalent of cutting cocaine with flour, but fine).

John McCarthy, a bartender at Bathtub Gin, a cocktail bar in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood with an actual bathtub sitting in its center, says they’re feeling the pinch. Before the shortage, he says, cases of limes cost $50 to $70. Now they’re $140 each, and the bar goes through four of them a day. Because they’re not passing on the price increase to guests, they have to sell many more gin and tonics to get by. “We decided not to remove any of our drinks,” he says. “The limes themselves are smaller, however, so our lime garnishes aren’t as big as they used to be!” To anyone who’s sober enough to notice, I suggest you drink another. Faster.

What’s the most civilized way to refuse a half moon of lemon thrust into your Corona? Is breaking the bottle on the bar too far? Not far enough?

Maybe all this Sturm und Drang will give birth to a new lime-lite generation of cocktails. Just imagine it! McCarthy’s gotten more creative, experimenting with adapting cocktails that normally contain lime to make them without it. “I created a no-lime, stirred margarita with Patron Silver Tequila, Patron Citronge (an orange liqueur), and verjus, which is the juice of unripe wine grapes,” he says. “The verjus gives it that hit of sour acid, which is what we generally use lime for in cocktails.” This all sounds great until there’s a run on verjus.

Even more urgent is the taco situation. The acidity level of limes and its yellow rat bastard cousin, the lemon, is dramatically different. Lemons have 1.44 grams of citric acid per ounce, compared to limes’ 1.38 grams per ounce. Don’t tell me my palate can’t taste that. And so for a taco purist who believes in the Holy Trinity of onions, cilantro, and radishes with a squeeze of lime, lemons sound blasphemous.

Or perhaps we can take a cue from chef Andrew Zimmern. As the host of Bizarre Foods America, he’s had quite a few strange meals, including live ship worms and wood worms seasoned with lime in Palawan in the Philippines. He’s noticed the absence of limes from in-flight beverage service on planes, and in Minneapolis, where “even my local pho place started serving lemons with soups because they can’t get or afford limes,” he told The Daily Beast. I couldn’t help but wonder...is it ever acceptable to use bottled lime juice?

No. It is not. “Bottled lime juice is awful and lacks the flavor and aroma of the real thing,” Zimmern says. “I applaud the local Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai restaurants here in Minnesota who are subbing lemons. Better to adapt than to serve a crappy product.” Even so, while a lot of people are making jokes, “there’s nothing funny about food crises, real or imagined,” Zimmern notes.

He makes a good point. No one laughed at the Great Velveeta Shortage of 2014, lost forever to the annals of history. And it’s really hard to whine, “Where are the liiiiiimes?” without sounding like a total dillweed. Believe me, I tried. At a taco truck in New York I asked how their lime stock was faring. The man who kindly made my meal in less than three minutes opened the styrofoam container and pointed: “Only lemons.” His answer was swift, definitive. Who was I to argue? And the taco (chorizo plus the Holy Trinity) was spicy and excellent, even with lemon.

Not all Mexican restaurants are feeling sour about the shortage. Chipotle, where customers can fill an $8 burrito with the signature cilantro-lime rice and grab a side of lime-flavored chips, seems to be doing just fine. When asked how the lime shortage was affecting the company, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said via email: “This has really not been an issue for us. We are still getting all the limes we need.” A closer look at Chipotle’s ingredients, made transparent to the public on this helpful website, reveals it uses “citrus juice.” Hmm. If Chipotle can survive without limes, maybe we all can?

Except, perhaps, for Steve Tarpin. He’s a guy who can complain about the shortage with good cause. His pie shop, Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, located near the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn, typically survives on 2,000-pound shipments, but last month received 500 pounds of “horrendous” fruit the size of grapes, according to DNAinfo. Tarpin said he’s had to raise prices by about 9 percent, bringing his 10-inch dessert to $30.

Luckily, he’s got a celebrity contingent of fans. As Agent Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks, Kyle MacLachlan wolfed down more pieces of pie than any man ought to. Thankfully, he lived through the caloric ordeal and emerged as something of a pie connoisseur, and he just christened Steve’s “hands down the best Key Lime Pie, from a guy who knows pies.” 

Stephen Colbert even chimed in recently on the Great Lime Shortage of 2014, which is in the early lead for Great White Whine of the Year. “This means no more margaritas. No more mojitos. Thankfully, our Bud Light Lime is safe because it’s flavored with Glade plug-ins.” Colbert draws the line at his appetizers, though. “Lemons in my guac? I’m sorry, but I would rather have my head chopped off and stuffed in a duffel bag.”

Colbert’s outrage opens up a discussion of bad lime-related behavior. What’s the most civilized way to refuse a half moon of lemon thrust into your Corona? Is breaking the bottle on the bar too far? Not far enough?

Perhaps everyone horribly affected by the shortage could just take a deep breath. The only solution, really, is to fire up that old Harry Nilsson classic and dream of a day when a united nation can once again put da lime in da coconut and drink ’em both up. Until then, I’ll swallow my righteous indignation mixed with tears.

Or maybe that’s salt from my margarita. One never can tell.