It's checkmate for chess pie
November 22nd, 2010
02:00 PM ET
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In a recent patriotic-and-Thanksgiving-themed lunchtime poll - brought to you by the Party of (D)eliciousness - one of the questions we posed was: what's your pie preference for the Turkey Day spread?

When a few folks declared their allegiance to the chess pie, many were confounded. What is this pie you speak of, and does it involve knights, pawns and bishops?

Chess pie is a particularly Southern creation - a rich custard-based pie with a filling made of eggs, butter and sugar. Some variations call for the addition of cornmeal, buttermilk or vinegar - and as the pie recipe migrated, as noted in our managing editor’s (semi) native Kentucky family recipe, dried fruits and nuts were added to the mix.

As for the origin of the name, we turned to the "dean of American Cookery," James Beard, for some historic insight.

Of the pie, he wrote in The Armchair:

The very earliest chess pies I could trace appeared in Virginia and Tennessee, relics of the English heritage in those parts of the country. The word chess is actually a bastardization of cheese, and the cheese pie - which interestingly enough, contained no cheese - was very popular in England for many years as a tea or supper dainty, in the form of little tarts.

...How ‘cheese pie’ became ‘chess pie’ no one seems to know. One story goes that a lady asked her cook what she was making and was told ‘It’s jes’ pie,” which she mistook for ‘chess pie,’ but I don’t place much credence in that version. More likely the name just got corrupted along the way, as so often happens.

Along with the latter theory, one of the Southern Foodways Alliance's founders and celebrated Tennessee-based writer John Egerton wrote in his book, Southern Food: At Home, On the road, In history, that chess pie could have first been called "chest pie" because it kept well in the pie chest - a cupboard used to store, well, pies.

Whatever the theory, a chess pie by any other name still tastes as sweet.

John Egerton’s Chess Pie

Beat three eggs with a wire whisk. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar, 3 tablespoons melted butter, 1 tablespoon of plain white cornmeal, 1/3 cup of buttermilk, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract. Mix the ingredients well and pour into an unbaked 9-inch pie shell. Bake in a preheated 375° oven on the bottom rack for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350° and bake 20 minutes more.

Dr. Kinsman’s Chess Pie

1. Preheat oven to 350
2. Beat 2 eggs until pale and thick
3. Add
– 1/3 cup honey
– 1/2 teaspoon salt
– 1 teaspoon cinnamon
– 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
4. Stir in
– 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
– 1 cup heavy cream
– Dried fruit and nuts
5. Add to pie shell
6. Bake 40 to 50 minutes or until knife comes out clean

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Filed under: Baked Goods • Bite • Cuisines • Dishes • Holiday • Holidays • Make • Pie • Recipes • Southern • Thanksgiving • Thanksgiving

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. julie

    Love this pie! Drizzle a little melted caramel on top....

    August 10, 2014 at 10:52 am |
  2. jj

    I'm originally from the north but now live in the south and have been introduced to this delicious pie. I like the honey recipe.

    December 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  3. Joel

    The story I heard about the name was that the pie was made in the old South by people who gathered what was available and cheap in the cupboard and made a pie out of it. When asked what it was called, they'd say "Just pie." Add a Southern accent to that and you get "Jess pie," which became "Chess Pie."

    December 2, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  4. Amanda

    Chess pie fabulous. Living in Texas, we eat it all the time. I've you'e never tried it, I highly suggest making one. The only trick is to pull it out of the oven while the center is still just a tad wobbly. Yum!

    November 23, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  5. Snowbunny

    mmmm french silk!

    November 23, 2010 at 9:59 am |
  6. Cate

    Chess Pie is always on the table at our family gatherings. It's about time it got some recognition. It's simple and delicious. My family does not put fruit or nuts in their pie. Our Chess Pie recipe has been in the family for over a hundred years.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:05 am |
  7. Juni

    Chess Pie is a classic. Ever heard of the famous 'Crack Pie' at Momofuku Milk Bar in NYC? It's just a chess pie, really.

    November 22, 2010 at 7:08 pm |
  8. Truth@SirBiddle

    Agreed, though Dizz's news is a definite downer to my day. Sad to see anyone hurting, you know.

    That said, I do enjoy the laughs and camaraderie this little forum provides.

    November 22, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  9. Sir Biddle@Truth,RichHead, Jerv

    Big surprise with Jdizzle. Hopefully the energy can keep going in his absence as this place gave me lots of laughs throughout the day.

    November 22, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  10. Richard Simmons

    I like head cheese pie.

    November 22, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  11. Truth

    Never even heard of it...I think we will stick with pumpkin, thanks.

    November 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm |
    • Jerv

      Huh, me too, never heard of it and I'm pretty much from the south. Kinda sounds like a custard pie.

      November 22, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
    • RichardHead

      Make mine cherry surrounded by 40 virgins.

      November 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • Evil Grin

      It tastes a little like a cream cheese pie, I suppose. I agree, though, stick with pumpkin.

      November 23, 2010 at 10:20 am |
    • Rom

      Just try it sometime, or you'll never know what you are missing, it's really good.

      November 21, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
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