Here in margarita land, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Texan who hasn’t heard about the Great Lime Panic of 2014, when the price of the humble fruit reached stratospheric heights due to a shortage in Mexico (which supplies a mere 98 percent of our country’s supply) and we were left dry and not the least bit high. Realizing for the first time how much we take those tart green orbs for granted, we had to ask ourselves some tough questions: What will put the zip in our guacamole and the tang in our tacos? What will we wedge into our bottles of Modelo? What will we do if some fool serves us a margarita made with lemon juice? And what in God’s name are we going to put in the coconut?
All of this angst was the result of what can only be called a recipe for disaster. Mix one part tropical cyclones in Mexico (which stripped the trees of their flowering buds) with one part huanglongbing (a citrus disease transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid, a proud member of the jumping plant louse family). Garnish with the Knights Templar, a Michoacán-based drug cartel that has been extorting lime farmers. Makes one very bitter cocktail.
For a while, limes were going for nearly five times what they were last year. Really feeling the squeeze were restaurants, bars, and other establishments that traffic in large quantities of the green gold, most of which decided to get creative about keeping costs down. San Antonio’s Culinary Institute of America, for instance, was paying $135 for a case of limes that usually cost $30. “We tried to alter recipes so that we didn’t need to order as many limes,” says Heather Gasaway, the campus’s special-services coordinator. In Austin, Gloria’s restaurant continued to use fresh lime in its cocktails but decided not to garnish them with an actual wedge of the stuff. And Sonic, known to wantonly top its signature beverage with an entire half a lime, demonstrated a remarkable commitment, should the crisis continue, to keeping Texans alive in the summer by deciding to “absorb this cost and provide Sonic customers with the Cherry Limeades they know and love,” according to Sonic spokesperson Patrick Lenow.
We’re not out of the grove yet, but as of press time, prices were decreasing, for a number of reasons. The state of Veracruz came through with a healthy spring crop, the Knights Templar were in retreat, and, according to Luis Gudino, CEO of Limex Sicar, the company that provides H-E-B with its limes, the fruit always drops in price come spring and summer. But huanglongbing remains a threat, and right now our best hope lies with another strange character in this strange story: a parasitic wasp that kills the citrus psyllid nymph by laying eggs beneath it; her offspring then happily consume the louse from the inside out.
Cocktail expert David Alan, the Tipsy Texan behind Texas Monthly’s Cocktail of the Month column, believes that the lime problem will remain a lively topic of conversation among the employees of your local watering hole. “Everyone was totally freaked out,” he says. “I mean, for a while there, the limes cost more than the booze.”