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.


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


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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23 Responses to “where i have been”

  1. 1
    Karen Rush — August 22, 2016 @ 12:14 am

    Your post spoke to me at every level of my being. The eloquence of your words taking down the veil was controlled, compelling, beautifully done.

    Although we have no schizophrenia in our family, we dealt with the rest and some more in our family over the years. My mother is now 93 years old and has dementia so doesn’t remember years of terrible unpleasantness let loose by drinking alcohol. She stopped drinking when my beloved father died coinciding with her vertical slip into mental shutdown. My only sibling, a fearful, difficult sister, died from cancer 12 weeks after diagnosis 18 months ago. She had no children, was unhappily married here in Australia for 37 years to a mono-syllabic Texan with chronic renal failure. He then died 4 weeks after her death thankfully.  To manage all this and stay sane, I called it how it was. Previously I chose to distance myself, to be an ‘other’. When I had my now-adult daughter, it was especially important to put distance between them and my babe, husband and me. 

    Quite some years ago I stumbled across your blog. I was drawn to the spare elegance of your words.  Then you went quiet. I thought you were just busy with your work. Medicine is a demanding profession. Selfishly, I am glad you are back and ‘out’. Welcome home. 

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — August 25th, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

      Karen, thank you so much for sharing part of your story with me. And thank you so much for your words of encouragement. Your comment meant a great deal to me. Thank you for that.

  2. 2
    Maureen — August 22, 2016 @ 10:48 am

    Thank you for your honesty about life, real life….the one we all live outside of the glow of Instagram.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — August 25th, 2016 @ 6:59 pm

      It’s so true, right? We rarely see the ugly in those Instagram lives, but I’m certain we all have our own unpleasant stories to tell. Thank you for continuing to read what I write here in this space.

  3. 3
    cherie — August 22, 2016 @ 11:10 am

    I understand the retreating into self. I am so glad that you’re feeling open to BEING open. I have been a long time reader of your beautifully written blog, having found it in baking exploration, I too assumed life had gotten in the way after you lost your father, as your kids got older. I am sorry it has been for other reasons but I will be here holding space for you as you feel your way towards finding your voice. I have been working on that myself of late, in life in general. I’ve been finding great strength and freedom in kundalini meditation [new to me] in these past months – and the way each meditation ends is with the phrase ‘Sat nam’ which basically means ‘the truth in me sees the truth in you’ and many varieties of such thoughts – so I will close with that – Sat nam.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — August 25th, 2016 @ 7:00 pm

      Oh, Cherie. I love that. Sat nam. Thank you.

  4. 4
    Deb|EastofEdenCooking — August 22, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

    It is good to hear from you! We all need time to heal, space to dream, a place to call our own. I have similar family issues/challenges/ problems. And really, I imagine we all do. I dance around it all on my blog and thank you for the courage to speak up.

    We are all injured or broken in some way. I know we are all connected, linked together by our humanity, living during this time, being in the place we call earth. I have no magic answers for being with the families we were given. I’ve come to think that this is part of living, the lessons we must learn. To love with understanding and compassion, all the while setting boundaries. After all, we have a life to too!

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — August 25th, 2016 @ 7:02 pm

      Thank you so much, Deb. I believe as you do, that we’re all connected in some way by our humanity, our human experience with pain and love and joy and fear. I am so glad you’re still reading. Thank you for being here.

  5. 5
    BC Pitcher — August 22, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

    Thank you so very much for your brave honesty. The walk with you reading MerryGourmet.com was healing on a number of levels. And your story and mine mirror one another. 

    Just this weekend as I left a favorite bakery in Traverse I wondered where you were and how you are. Today is the first time a post has landed in my inbox since your father died. It is heartening to read you bravely share the truth of your family and I admire you and think you one of the bravest ladies I’ve ever met. 

    I’m not yet brave enough to share my lonely truths of the last seven years. But reading your blog, I am closer. Please keep writing. 


    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — August 25th, 2016 @ 7:08 pm

      BC, thank you for writing this comment. It means so much to know that you’re out there reading. I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve had struggles over these past several years, but know that you’re not alone. WE are not alone. Hugs to you, friend.

  6. 6
    Natalie — August 22, 2016 @ 6:06 pm

    I’ve missed your posts and was happy to see you writing again.  Thank you for being so open and honest, even at the risk of upsetting family members.  Mental illnesses are no joke, and should be taken seriously. I wish there wasn’t such a stigma regarding them so people would feel more comfortable talking about mental health issues.  That being said, as a mom, of course you’ll shield your kiddos from toxic relationships, even when they’re with family members. It must be difficult to deal with this on top of grief. I’m sorry you’re going through.  Please keep sharing if that’s what helps you heal and feel whole. Blessings to you.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — August 25th, 2016 @ 7:10 pm

      Thank you so much, Natalie. The stigma around mental illness is such a challenge and one that we’ve dealt with in our family for years. I hope that it changes over time. I plan to keep speaking out, for whatever that’s worth. Thank you for being here, Natalie.

  7. 7

    MJ, thank you. For being honest. For being you. Share what you need/ want to here. And remember we’re here to listen/ help, ok? XO

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — August 25th, 2016 @ 7:10 pm

      Oh, thank you so much, Mardi. I know you’re there. I really do. xo

  8. 8
    Angela — August 23, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

    Thank you for having the courage to write about your story.  By the way I love your blog, your stories and your food. You’ve in some way have become like a good friend – a real friend that I come to for feel good reading. I can identify in so many ways with your post today. I’m a daughter of an alcoholic father – I called him the Russian roulett drunk, I have struggled with addiction myself, I have lost some of my most precious loved ones to cancer, and many times my voice silenced by my past. Feelings from the past that often have me frozen in fear in the now. I have learned that feelings are not fact and at times they are amplified by association. How I move forward now is by remembering that feeling when I was in my 20s and having no care in the world, fearless, I was invincible and I could do anything no matter what. I think of that I grab hold of that feeling and hold on tight. That to me is real. That to me is how life should feel. I hope and wish the same for you. That you grab hold of that feeling that makes you the most happy and hold on tight, because you deserve it. 

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — August 25th, 2016 @ 7:11 pm

      Wow. Thank you so much, Angela. I’m so glad you’re here. xo

  9. 9

    I’m just one of those strangers who loves when your posts pop up in my reader, no matter how infrequent they may be. Your words have always resonated with me. I found your blog years ago via your roasted tomato soup recipe. I’ve stuck around, though, because your stories are always genuine and so beautifully written. Very few blogs compel me to click through and comment, but I know I’ve done it on several occasions here. Thank you for sharing your story. I, too, have a sibling with mental health issues. His aren’t as severe as the ones you face (but we are still young, so I know much of our journey is still to come), but I appreciate your openness to talk about something so stigmatized. I still make that tomato soup, by the way. It’s warm and comforting and reassuring, just like your words. Thank you, MJ.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — August 25th, 2016 @ 7:13 pm

      Thank YOU, Jessica. Thank you for reading and for taking the time to write to me in a comment. Your words mean so much to me. xo

  10. 10
    Rachel Winter — August 25, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

    Love you MJ ♥️
    Glad you are back 🙂 

  11. 11
    Melissa — September 16, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    Thank you for sharing your story and welcome back.  

  12. 12
    Ryan Smith — November 2, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    Thinking of you, M-J. A tough post, but inspiring that you found a way forward.

  13. 13
    Matilde Bird — December 6, 2016 @ 4:23 pm

    MJ- I just logged in to check last year’s fruit cake cookies recipe and read about your withdrawal from your blog. You seem to be a wonderful person and you write beautiful, so I wish you the best.

  14. 14
    Sharon Carr — August 21, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

    Merrygourmet.com, I was so very glad to see your name pop up on my feed today. It’s been too long!!  That Alaska trip looks awesome and makes me want to do the research and put a trip together. Don’t stay away so long next time!!

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