We thought they'd always be there for our margaritas and our Mexican food. Our supply of limes — like their garnish-y cousin, parsley — seemed endless.
Maybe we took the little green guys for granted. We thought nothing of ordering water with a wedge of lime. For free! Those were simpler times a few months back — before we came to know life during The Great Lime Shortage.
How serious is the crisis some are calling Limeageddon? A number of Mexican restaurants declined comment on the story or didn't return phone calls and emails. I get the feeling people are afraid to talk about it.
Vince Ponzio, general manager of Cantina 1511 on East Boulevard, was unafraid. He says his restaurant has felt the impact of the shortage (higher prices and lower-quality limes), but they aren't passing the sting along to customers. It's business as usual at the Dilworth eatery. They're still making their drinks with fresh limes, garnishing with lime and — best of all — using fresh lime in the guacamole they prepare tableside. Ponzio says they're using real lime juice that's pasteurized and refrigerated (not from concentrate and longer lasting than fresh lime) in dishes that call for lime.
"We elected to take a hit in the short term, but not make our guests feel the impact," he says. Bless.
Trying to get some folks to comment on the shortage has been akin to trying to get someone from La Cosa Nostra to comment on where Jimmy Hoffa's buried. Heather Garlich (a great name for someone in food marketing!) is the director of media and public relations for the Food Marketing Institute. Surely she's qualified and willing to speak on the subject, right?
Garlich emailed me a chart and suggested I contact an economics professor. I told her I couldn't quote a chart (nor am I especially adept at reading them) and asked if she could — please — answer just one of my questions about Lime-pocalypse.
She referred me to the USDA website and wrote in an email, "USDA's estimates for 2014 CPI [consumer price index] increases are slightly higher than 2013 at 2.5-3.5 percent, but well within the normal range of growth on a year-to-year basis."
My response: "Does that mean there is, in fact, no lime shortage based on USDA standards?"
Her response: "I would caution you on drawing conclusions from the CPI figure."
I was beginning to think I didn't so much need an economist as a private investigator.
Plus, I had already thought of the USDA website. (Duh, Heather.) The site was hardly helpful. Type "lime" into the search bar, and you get a slew of articles on the calcium compound used to improve crops grown in soils low in lime. Type in "lime shortage" in the "Ask the Expert" section of the site, and you get responses unrelated to the real lime shortage. (One result was "What is open dating?" That sounds like a topic for Dan Savage.)
As I was about to give up, I saw this in my inbox: "We have an economist who can tell you all about limes and the sad shortage that margarita drinkers now endure," wrote Will Rodger, director of policy communications for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) — and my personal hero.
Veronica Nigh, an economist with AFBF, was ready to talk about the crisis no one else wants to discuss. The shortage is a result, she says, of a sort of perfect storm. The United States gets nearly 100 percent of our limes from two regions of Mexico, and heavy rains damaged much of the crop from one of those regions this year. The other region is battling yellow dragon disease (or "citrus greening").
But Nigh says there's hope. Lime trees produce fruit throughout the year, she says. The two big harvesting seasons are from April to June and November to December. "We just have to stick around and wait for the trees to do their thing," she says.
And we won't have to wait until November. Producers began cutting back on their harvests when Mexico had an oversupply of limes a few years ago. They can now ramp up production to try to meet the demands of thirsty Americans.
I asked Nigh: So, we won't have to go a whole summer without limes?
"No, ma'am," she said. "The horror, right?" (She's clearly an economist who gets it.) She predicts we could all be enjoying plenty green garnish by late July or early August.
As for prices, she admits economists don't know if they'll go higher. "The recent spike was even higher than economists predicted," she says.
How high? Danna Jones of Harris Teeter reports that limes are retailing for 99 cents each this summer compared with 59 cents each last summer. Consumers are feeling the squeeze.
A Whole Foods spokesperson, Darrah Horgan, acknowledges the price increase but assured us before press time, "We expect things to be back to normal in the next week or so, and we don't anticipate any more issues."
What we could all use now is some lime aid. Just remember what Veronica Nigh said about the emergency harvest now happening in Mexico. Get the margarita salt ready. Relief is on its way.
ONE MARGARITA DRINKER'S STRUGGLE
We know what to do when life gives us lemons. But what about when life denies us limes?
Plaza Midwood resident (and frequent dinner party hostess) Candice Langston has posted on her Facebook page about the lime shortage and its impact on her. The director of development and strategic partnerships for the College of Arts and Architecture at UNC Charlotte is keeping a stiff upper lip — and her tongue firmly in cheek — as she navigates her way through a lime-less summer.
Creative Loafing: On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the worst), how distraught are you about the lime shortage?
Candice Langston: It's been a roller coaster, but I've settled in at around 5.
How do you think the lime shortage will impact your summer? What coping strategies can you share with readers?
At first, it was sheer panic. I thought summer was over before it really got swinging. Then it was denial. Now I've entered the acceptance phase. I figured out how to cope by seeking out similarly zingy, but more plentiful, firm-skinned fruit alternatives such as tangelos, the odd navel orange and even bananas in extreme situations.
What were your favorite drinks of summer — before the crisis?
Definitely margaritas, mojitos and spiked limeade — all obviously lime-dependent.
Have you had to develop new favorites that don't use lime, or are you adjusting your recipes to require — God forbid! — no lime?
Now I'm more about watermelon infusions or a chilled tomato martini, if I'm feeling continental. Just don't talk to me about guacamole.
Have you discovered any clever substitutions for limes and lime juice? Is there anything that approximates that taste?
No. Big Citrus tried to push something on us called the "golden lime," which I suspect was just a lemon. But there is no substitute for the original.
Do you know of an underground source for limes?
Personally, it's not worth it. I've heard of people getting "disappeared" when they try to tap the lime black market.
Would you reject a margarita served to you with a wedge of lemon?
I've adapted. Now I would just push the lemon right on in and start sipping. But that's just me.
Anything else you'd like to say on this important matter?
I think we have to start putting some serious thought into whether the "lime as garnish" helps or hurts us. Maybe some focus groups or a 5K to raise awareness are in order.