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 —Ā  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.

IĀ  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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10 Responses to “a true spring break, and a recipe: ruby red grapefruit pound cake”

  1. Kathryn — April 8, 2013 @ 4:57 am

    A lovely cake and I’m so glad that you had the chance to unwind and disconnect from life for a few days.

  2. Di — April 8, 2013 @ 8:34 am

    What a perfect place to unwind. Captiva is one of my favorite Florida resort towns. Hope re-entry is not too difficult for you.

  3. Nutmeg Nanny — April 9, 2013 @ 12:08 am

    These are wonderful photos, it looks like the perfect getaway šŸ™‚ the cake looks lovely!

  4. Nisrine — April 9, 2013 @ 9:08 am

    What a gorgeous cake and beautiful glaze. Glad you enjoyed your spring break.

  5. Brian @ A Thought For Food — April 9, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    I’m not sure how I’d do on a true vacation… I think it’d take at least 48 hours to get into the swing of things. Sounds like you had a wonderful time… you really deserved some time off.

    I’m in love with this grapefruit cake. I enjoy grapefruit in all fashions, but rarely do you see it in baked goods.

  6. Dina — April 9, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

    i love grapefruit but have never tried baking with it. it sounds refreshing!

  7. The true vacation. I need one of those. Glad you got yours and this cake is the perfect way to ease back into “real life”. Hugs xo

  8. Lauren @ Dallas Duo Bakes — April 10, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

    Sometimes we just all need to get away. Especially with the constant pressures and technology that follows us around this day and age. Glad you could relieve a little stress. A grapefruit pound cake sounds so refreshing! I’m definitely going to bookmark this one!

  9. I am glad you had some time off šŸ™‚ I am a big fan of ruby red but never baked with it. lovely pound cake- it looks like it will melt in your mouth

  10. Aggie — April 11, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    I’m so glad you were able to get away MJ, especially to such a truly serene piece of paradise. Your kids smiles make me happy…and so does this pound cake. I love grapefruit and pound cake, your combo is just perfect. xoxo

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