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.
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?
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.