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.

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David Bates’ Death


Granny Burrell Falls, Panthertown Valley
I want to thank those who emailed condolences about my cousin’s death.  I really appreciate your sympathy and understanding.

My thoughts have been much with my sister-in-law, Brenda, who is amazing even as she lives through this nightmare of losing her husband of forty years.  She and relatives and friends who came to Glenville to be with her had a service to purify the place where David died.   I was moved to tears when she told me she invited the man who felled the tree that killed David to come and be part of that healing ritual.  It must have meant so much to him, and shows Brenda’s kind heart.

I have also been thinking a lot about friends who have lost a spouse or child suddenly. I remember, too, when my father died suddenly of a heart attack; I’ve written about that experience in a short story called “Swimming, Snow,” on my website under “short stories.”  The shock of a sudden death is so great; my mind has been struggling to comprehend and believe it.  But then when I was walking to the farmers’ market in our neighborhood this weekend, I ran into a friend whose husband died a year ago this week after a prolonged, debilitating illness.  We agreed that the loss of a loved one, whether suddenly or after a long leave-taking, is terrible.

I’ve been conscious that the questions that keep me awake at night—how could it happen?; why?; what if… and the grief in my heart are universal and connect me to so many others who have been here too.  I’ve thought about how many people are driven to write after experiencing a heartbreaking loss.  So many poems, memoirs and elegies have come from that need to say it.  Writing was certainly my impulse, when I first received the news and didn’t know what else to do with myself.  I wanted to let others know what had happened, to express what I was experiencing and feeling, and to memorialize my cousin by trying to capture some of what he was and meant in words.  I wanted the balm of telling.

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A Sudden Death

North Carolina Mountains


My cousin David Bates was killed yesterday, June 28, 2011.

When I opened my emails this morning there was one from his email address, only the subject said, “Paulette, this is Brenda…”  I didn’t even pause to think about that, but when I opened it she apologized for telling me in an email.

“There has been a terrible accident and David is gone.”

The words so flat.  Yet containing so much.

It was after midnight there in Glenville, North Carolina when she was emailing to tell me.  I could feel her shock and bewilderment.  All she knew to do was make a list and start going down it.

They had had a tree guy there to take down some trees.  They live deep in the woods way up on a mountain near Glenville, North Carolina, not too far from Cashiers. I had visited many times, I knew the house and property well.  In March he and Brenda had driven over to see me when I was at a writers’ residency at Hambidge, in Rabun Gap, Georgia, and I had just called David on his birthday, June 19.  He had turned sixty-five years old.

Brenda said the tree guy started taking the trees down about 8:00 that night, while there was still light.  She was watching TV., she heard the first two go down, and then when she looked out the window she saw that the third had fallen towards the house, not into the woods as the other two had.  She swore she saw David picking up sticks near the leafy top of the tree, but then the tree man came running in, saying call 911, David’s under the tree and he’s not breathing.

She thought he was joking.  She went out with the phone, dialing 911.  She saw David only it didn’t look like him.  She thought it was a mistake. “He was gray, broken, looking somewhere else, and not there.”

It comes to all of us, doesn’t it.  Grief, loss, the death of a loved one.   Yet when it happens suddenly, it is like a tree falling on us, crushing us with its weight.

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