a taste of history: grandmother’s chess pie

Holidays with my mother’s family included one staple whenever my grandmother, Alice, was involved – her chess pie. Chess pie was always a bit of a mystery to me. I never knew quite what was in it – and really didn’t care, honestly. I just knew that I liked it an awful lot. If given the choice between pecan pie or chess, I’d choose the chess pie any day of the week.

At some point over the last ten years or so my grandmother stopped making the chess pie, along with other classics like her banana pudding. Luckily, I was able to get a handwritten copy of her recipe which I’ve kept folded up in a little box in my kitchen for the past several years.

The basic ingredients in chess pie. Except I forgot to add butter to mine. Oops!

Chess pie is a classic southern dessert. There is some controversy surrounding the exact origins of the chess pie, sometimes called vinegar pie. According to my copy of James Beard’s American Cookery, the chess pie or tart was originally from England and then brought to New England and Virginia where it was served “more as a tea accompaniment than as a dessert pie.” I’m not sure James Beard and my grandmother are referring to the same type of pie, though, because the recipes are somewhat dissimilar.

Putting all the questions about the origins of the pie aside, I can give you some facts about this chess pie recipe. First, along with pumpkin pie, it’s the dessert I most associate with holidays and family. Second, this chess pie recipe came to me from my grandmother, Alice, whose family is originally from Tennessee, so the pie is truly a southern classic. Alice learned the recipe from her mother, Offie. And before Offie, the chess pie recipe came from Offie’s mother, Amanda. Amanda lived from 1861 to 1935, and she was my great-great-grandmother. So, this chess pie recipe is at least from the late 1800s.

How cool is that?

Chess pie batter is fairly thin and runny.

This past weekend I made the heirloom chess pie recipe. It tasted just as it did in my taste memory. The top of the pie crackled under the gentle pressure of the fork, just as I remembered, and the inside was thick and creamy. And sweet! Oh, this is one sweet pie. Imagine a pecan pie without the pecans, but with a thicker filling — and better, really –  and I think you’d have something fairly similar to a chess pie. This is a pie that deserves a cup of coffee or a glass of ice cold milk, or perhaps a slice of bread (as my mom would prefer), to cut the sweetness.

I  shared this chess pie with my daughter, Madeline — the great-great-great-grandaughter of Amanda. She grinned in anticipation of the first bite, dipped her fork in and tasted, a smile forming on her sweet lips. She said to me, “This is the sweetest pie EVER. When can we have it again?”

She and I shared that moment at the table — two forks, two glasses of milk, one piece of pie, years and years of history thick in the air — and it was the best piece of chess pie I’d ever tasted.

Yield: 1 9-inch pie

Grandmother's Chess Pie

I should point out that the original recipe called for one stick of melted butter in the batter. When I made the pie, I melted the butter in the microwave and let it sit for a while to let it cool. Unfortunately, I found the butter - or, rather, my husband did - two days later, still in the microwave. I had completely forgotten to use it. The pie was just perfect without it. So this recipe? I didn't use butter, and I don't recommend it.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon cornmeal
3 eggs, beaten slightly
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 9-inch unbaked deep dish pie crust

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine sugar and cornmeal. Add beaten eggs and milk, and mix well. Stir in vinegar and vanilla. Mix until well blended.

Pour into the pie crust and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn oven temperature down to 325 and bake for additional 40 to 45 minutes or until center of pie is set. Turn oven off and let the pie cool in the oven.

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60 Responses to “a taste of history: grandmother’s chess pie”

  1. 1
    Heather @ The Single Dish — September 22, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    This pie looks delicious and so easy to make! I love the short ingredient list. I will have to try this out.

  2. 2
    Macaroni Mama — September 22, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    This is a very sweet post…just like your chess pie.

  3. 3
    jana @ cherryteacakes.com — September 22, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    oh that sounds so interesting. corn meal pie….fascinating.

  4. 4
    Sasha — September 22, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    Thanks for this. I have been obsessed with Chess Pie ever since I tasted it at a friend’s wedding in TN a few years ago. She had little mini bite size versions, and I consumed a truly astounding number of them. Can’t wait to try making this!

    • mj (merry gourmet) replied: — September 22nd, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

      Sasha – I like the idea of mini versions. I may have to try that next time.

  5. 5
    Brooke — September 22, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    Thanks so much for sharing this recipe with all of us! What a treasure!

  6. 6
    Dr. Bob — September 22, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

    Beautiful post that captures a bit of your family heritage. But, why “Chess?” Was it created by Mrs. Chess? Was it consumed while playing chess by some in the South?

    • Neely replied: — September 23rd, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

      My family has also made chess pie for as long as I can remeber and the story I have been told behind the name chess pie is that someone made it and was asked what kind of pie it was and they said “It’s just pie.” And after people saying that it got changed to chess pie.

  7. 7
    Liz the Chef — September 22, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    Your family story is as lovely as your recipe! Wish I could take food shots like you do…

  8. 8
    Margot — September 22, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    What a great post. I love finding and making old family recipes. It is such a sense of achievement when it tastes like you remember it. Well done.

  9. 9
    Judy — September 22, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    I have decided that I love any kind of baking that involves cornmeal. There’s just something about it that’s heavenly in muffins (cornmeal muffins are my fav) or waffles or bread. And now, chess bread! I must admit I’d never heard of it prior to today, but it looks easy enough for me to try at home this weekend. i’ve no magic fingers with baking so i hope it turns out well!

  10. 10
    jules and ruby — September 23, 2010 @ 12:45 am

    great post…i love anything that comes from Grandma’s kitchen. this one looks like a classic…and a MUST make.

  11. 11
    Xiaolu @ 6 Bittersweets — September 23, 2010 @ 12:56 am

    Looks and sounds delicious! Even sweeter that it’s your grandmother’s :).

  12. 12
    Cooking Rookie — September 23, 2010 @ 2:13 am

    What a beautiful pie, and now that there is no butter in it I can make it guilt free :-). Certainly saving this one to favorites! Thanks!

  13. 13
    Marisa — September 23, 2010 @ 4:15 am

    This sound somewhat similar to our South African milktart, which also boasts a milky, custardy filling on a pie crust. Will definitely have to try this. Thanks for sharing a part of your family history with us!

  14. 14
    Carla Duclos — September 23, 2010 @ 6:04 am

    Hi Mary,

    Just found this post in your blog by a RT from @smithbites. What a great history and recipe! I loved it! I am from Brazil so I have never heard before about the Chess pie and now I am curious to try it. :)

    Your pictures are great!

    Just one notice, the link for the pie crust in the ingredients list is not working.

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful history and recipe with us. :)

    • mj (merry gourmet) replied: — September 23rd, 2010 @ 8:33 am

      Carla – Thanks so much for your comment, and I’m so glad Debra from @smithbites referred you over here! I also appreciate you letting me know about the link. I’ve fixed it, so it should be working correctly now.

      • Carla Duclos replied: — September 23rd, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

        Hi Merry,

        You are welcome! I’m glad I found out your blog. I am already following you on twitter and your blog on RSS. :)
        The link is working fine now.

  15. 15
    Lisa McBrayer — September 23, 2010 @ 7:01 am

    In addition to the story behind it, the fact that you can make a pie this yummy and rich w/o butter is awesome! I’m going to try it; w/o butter!

  16. 16
    Kate — September 23, 2010 @ 7:45 am

    I love seeing historical recipes like this. I did a post a couple of years ago on transparent pie, which is the Ohio Valley version of chess pie. However you make it, I love it – and yours is positively gorgeous!

    • mj (merry gourmet) replied: — September 23rd, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

      Kate – Your transparent pie is very similar to chess pie. Loved your post!

  17. 17
    SMITH BITES — September 23, 2010 @ 7:48 am

    Love the story, and for me, is why I cook and it’s why I blog; it’s the story of recipes like this one that connect us all. Thanks for sharing!

  18. 18
    Wendi @ Bon Appetit Hon — September 23, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    What a lovely connection you have to your family through this pie. Thanks for sharing the story (and the pie).

  19. 19
    Sara — September 23, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    I saw your recipe on FG! such a sweet post about your grandmother’s recipe! Both the recipe and the photographs are beautiful and so is your daughter! :)

  20. 20
    Pretty. Good. Food. — September 23, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    Mmmm, looks delicious!

  21. 21
    Susi — September 23, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    Beautiful post and I feel special that you shared such a wonderful part of your familie’s history with your readers :o) I’ve never had chess pie before but will have to give it a try with your family heirloom!

  22. 22
    Dixie — September 24, 2010 @ 2:02 am

    Mmmmm, simple, sweet (no pun intended) and made with basic kitchen staples, except for the pie crust. If you claim its better then pecan pie well, I’m gonna have to try it.

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  24. 23
    Sarah@buttered-up.com — September 24, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    This looks amazing. I can totally feel the texture of this already. :D

  25. 24
    Mindy — September 27, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    I remember your talking about this on twitter! I’m so glad you posted this, and what an amazing history.

  26. 25
    ELBSeattle — October 1, 2010 @ 5:13 am

    My family has had Chess pie for Thanksgiving as long as I can remember. My mom is from the hills of Kentucky, and she grew up with the pie. Whenever I bake a Chess pie I pull out the recipe my sister wrote out for me almost 30 years ago. Our recipe differs from yours in that our version does include a stick of butter. I also use cider vinegar rather than white vinegar. Double strength vanilla (you can order it from the Spice House in Evanston Illinois – it is worth every penny) makes the chess pie doubly good. I also grate a little bit of nutmeg into the filling, which adds a nice warm flavor. Finally – I’ve found that making a foil collar to cover the crust helps keep the crust from burning. I think my recipe bakes at a higher temp than yours, so perhaps this hasn’t been a danger w/ your recipe.

    • mj (merry gourmet) replied: — October 1st, 2010 @ 8:10 am

      This recipe originally called for a stick of butter, but silly me put it in the microwave to melt and never took it out! Turns out, the butter wasn’t critical to the recipe, and I actually loved it without the butter. I’m interested in trying your version with the cider vinegar and nutmeg, though. I’ve not had a problem with the crust burning, probably due to the lower cooking temperature, as you mention.

  27. 26
    omes — October 1, 2010 @ 6:27 am

    looks delicious!
    what kind of vinegar do you recommend using?
    i think i have 4 different kinds of vinegar sitting in my kitchen, so i’m not sure which one i should use.

    • mj (merry gourmet) replied: — October 1st, 2010 @ 8:08 am

      I used white vinegar in this recipe, but as another commenter (ELBSeattle) pointed out, cider vinegar works well, too.

  28. 27
    Barbara @Modern Comfort Food — October 1, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

    This is such a beautiful story and such a beautiful pie too. A similar chess pie was my grandmother’s signature dish – using home grown eggs, milk, and cornmeal – and I so loved it. But it’s been years since I made it. Many thanks for the reminder of this Southern classic.

  29. 28
    judy — November 26, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    Thanks for the recipe. Made this yesterday. Since it was Thanksgiving, I added half of the eggs back in. Yum, and the crust was delicious as well.

    • mj (merry gourmet) replied: — November 28th, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, Judy! I’m glad to hear it worked out well.

  30. 29
    Ann Mc — November 28, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    What an endearing family story! This story relates just how special food can be. It nourishes our soul as well as our body. It allows us to share those before us so that they may live on for generations to come. What a tribute to a family! Thanks for sharing this it was very touching.

    • mj (merry gourmet) replied: — November 28th, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

      Ann – You’re so right about food nourishing the soul as well as the body. Thanks for stopping by!

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  33. 30
    PJ — October 19, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

    Help! I tried this recipe exactly as you published it (without the butter) and it was not thick and creamy on the inside. It was a bit watery on the very bottom and the custard was not holding together very well. I cooked it as long as you indicated. And then left it in the oven (turned off) until it was almost completely cooled. What did I do wrong! I tried this recipe as a test for a contest this weekend.

    • Merry-Jennifer replied: — October 19th, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

      Hi PJ,

      It’s hard for me to say exactly what happened in this case. I wonder if, because the custard didn’t set up, maybe your oven temperature was actually cooler than you thought it was. Do you have an oven thermometer that you could test your oven temp with?

  34. 31
    PJ — October 19, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

    I don’t have one on hand but can get one. Do you really leave it in the oven for over an hour – almost 2 until it completely cools?

    • Merry-Jennifer replied: — October 19th, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

      I think the time will vary. I leave my chess pie in the oven until it’s mostly cool, but it doesn’t have to reach room temperature. You can take it out sooner, but it may crack – which is really no big deal.

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  36. 32
    Stephanie Loomis — November 22, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

    I make an authentic chess pie (well, I was told it was authentic my an 83 year old neighbor from southern Mississippi–she said it tasted like her grandmother’s). Your recipe is a little simpler, and if the butter isn’t missed, I’m going to try it out at Christmas! (I’ve already done 3 for Thanksgiving, including one with a gluten free crust.)

    thanks for sharing the personal history :)

  37. 33
    Stephanie Loomis — November 22, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    oh–and I make tart-sizes by using a muffin tin as baking dish. Works beautifully.

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  39. 34
    Pam bishop — April 28, 2012 @ 9:41 am

    I followed directions and left in oven to cool, but it deflated in middle! What do you think happened?

    • Merry-Jennifer replied: — April 28th, 2012 @ 9:59 am

      Pam, I’m so sorry this happened to your pie! I wish I could tell you what happened, but it’s too hard to guess without being there with you in your kitchen while you baked it. Is your oven calibrated and heating to the right temperature? Perhaps it needed a bit more time in your oven, with the oven still on?

  40. 35
    Pat Whitney — October 1, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    You show a picture of white distilled vinegar but I can tell you they were all using cider vinegar way back when. I’m 79 next month and my Grandma had a recipe for chess pie and for vinegar pie and she never went any further south than Long Island, NY.

  41. 36
    Teresa Lemon — October 16, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

    Was reading your recipe, and thinking I would make it. Thought it very funny, that you left the butter in the microwave, and how in the world could it taste as good without it.
    Made a vinegar pie off of a recipe that I got from the television (not yours, not yet cause this one has pecans in it, and husband wanted a pecan pie, and I wanted chess) anyway, it was awesome.
    Made two, and took one to my sister, while I was at her house telling her about your recipe, I could not recall putting the butter in my pie. Got home, and sure enough, the butter was still in the microwave :)
    Thinking that it is the butter that causes them not to set up so well?????

    Tried your recipe (without the butter) and I am in awe, it is GREAT!!!!! My mother was from Tennessee, and passed away before I could get her recipe, and now, thanks to you, I believe I have it :)

  42. 37
    Teresa Lemon — October 16, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    Almost forgot, took the previous lady’s advice and used apple cider vinegar, and do believe it makes a difference in the flavor…..just sayin.

    • Merry-Jennifer replied: — October 16th, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

      Thank you so much for your feedback, Teresa! So funny about the butter! :)

  43. 38
    Kelly Houston — November 22, 2012 @ 1:09 am

    How nice of you to share this generation after generation recipe love oldies but goodies! Thanks so much for bring a new tradition to my family!

  44. 39
    P.A.T. Hunt — November 27, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    Our daughter’s future in-laws joined us for Thanksgiving and they brought a chess pie, made from Grandma Polly’s recipe of North Carolina. Out on the East End of Long Island, NY we never heard of such a pie. This one was flavored with lemon and absolutely luscious! I so glad my search to find out more brought me to your website with your family history of the joy of chess pie making and eating.

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