The Sweetness of Chess Pie


Chess Pie
Chess Pie

I have every intention of having this blog be about books and writing, but sometimes I stray.  Today is one of those days, because I want to give you my recipe for Chess Pie.

Chess Pie is an old Southern recipe.  My South Carolina father loved a chess pie, untouched as he was by any health food considerations.  He lived in an era before cholesterol, or at least before we knew the word, and he died at home at 87 of a heart attack.  A good way to go.   My main memory of chess pie was when my boyfriend my freshman year of college flew to Greenville to see me, and came down the steps of the plane carrying a chess pie for my father.  I thought that was a little too sweet, in more ways than one.  If the boyfriend could have married my parents, that would have been perfect.  That’s more or less what that chess pie told me.

The pie originated in England.  No one is quite sure where the name comes from.  Some think it’s because the pies were kept in a pie chest.  Another explanation goes that when a husband asked what kind of pie it was, the wife answered “jes’ pie.”

Right now as I type this I have a chess pie in the oven and it smells like heaven, if heaven is made of butter, eggs, vanilla and sugar.  I wish you could smell it.  I’m taking it to a dinner party tonight for six.  I about had apoplexy trying to decide what to make for dessert.  I have at this very moment in my book bag to return to the library the book Sugar Busters, which states that sugar is basically poison.  I am interested in health, food, and nutrition and I read various books related to the subject.  I try to cook fairly healthily.  I hold the fort on red meat, am bad about butter, do pretty well with whole grains, and can walk away from sugar most of the time.  When I was assigned dessert to bring tonight, it created the usual tiz about what to fix.  I often make something with apples, but at this point in the fall I’m tired of apple crisp, baked apples, apple pie, and apple Brown Betty.  I got out Mark Bittman’s Food Matters (because I believe it does) and looked through the dessert recipes. I wanted to take something without too much sugar, butter, and eggs, something somewhat healthy which wouldn’t make people feel bad about eating it, not to mention spiking their blood sugar.  But I didn’t want to make Coconut and Brown Rice Pudding, Spiked Pink Grapefruit Granita, or Frozen Chocolate Bananas.  I didn’t want to make a single Mark Bittman healthy dessert.

I wanted to make chess pie.

For one thing, it’s really easy to make.  Real easy, if you use a Pillsbury pie crust, which I do.  And mixing it just now, the filling was a wonder of simplicity and pale beauty.  And it bakes up so beautifully, browning to a golden sheen.  It reminds me of childhood, home, my parents, long gone, and it reminds me of my cousin David, who died suddenly and tragically this past June (“A Sudden Death,” June 29th post).  The first Thanksgiving without him.  Not that we would have been together, him living in North Carolina, and me in Minnesota, but we would have called for sure. Growing up, we spent just about every Thanksgiving together in South Carolina.  He and his wife Brenda came here to Minneapolis for a Thanksgiving many years ago.  It was too cold for them, and Brenda got sick immediately with a bad cold, but David loved it.  He and Jeff went running around Lake Harriet, which was just beginning to freeze over.  It made eerie sounds as if someone were playing a musical saw out on the lake in the wind.

This Thanksgiving Brenda emailed me that she had driven over to the coast to spread the last of David’s ashes in the ocean.  Sunday would have been their 40th wedding anniversary, and he had wanted them to go to the beach.  She spread the ashes at the edge of the surf and let the waves take them out.  I found this beautiful, heartbreaking, and right.  Back to the universe, back to the sea.  I thought about how I had loved David and how he had loved me.  It was a love as simple and sweet as butter, eggs, vanilla and sugar.

Serve it with a little whipped cream….

Chess Pie

½ cup melted butter

1 ½ cups white sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

1 tablespoon cornmeal

¼ cup buttermilk

1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

1 9” unbaked pie shell


Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a bowl mix the butter, sugar and vanilla together.  Mix in the eggs, then stir in the cornmeal, buttermilk and vinegar until smooth.  Pour into pie shell.

Put pie on baking sheet and put in 450 oven.  Immediately turn oven to 350 and bake for 40 – 45 minutes.  Let cool.


5 Replies to “The Sweetness of Chess Pie”

  1. I had my first chess pie in Virginia a year ago. I'm sure there are more in my future, since we will return there after this year in Brooklyn. I'm writing about food right now in my memoir.

    Loved the way you ended this essay just before the recipe.

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