If there is nothing more American than apple pie, then there is nothing more Southern than chess pie.
Chess pie is a Southern specialty that, at its heart, has four basic ingredients: eggs, sugar, butter, and flour. However, it is a chameleon pie in that you can add flavorings, such as lemon, vanilla, or chocolate. Some recipes call for cornmeal, some for vinegar, and some for buttermilk, but the basics remain the same.
The origin of the name “chess pie” is a mystery. And theories for where this name comes from are as abundant as the variations of the pie. The most plausible theory is that the name comes from seventeenth-century English cheeseless cheesecakes. These cheesecakes got their name for their texture (lemon curd, for example, is often referred to as lemon cheese), and cheese was often spelled with one e, which is much closer to chess. A selection of cheeseless “cheese” pastries in Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1879) are made with egg yolks, sugar, butter, milk, and lemon juice—very much like chess pie filling.
Other theories include the idea that the pastry originally came from Chester, England. Some say gentlemen were served this sweet dessert when they retreated to a room to play chess. Others believe that chess is a corruption of the word “chest,” referring to a “pie chest,” where the pies were originally kept. Then there is the story about the cook who was asked what she put in the pie. Her reply was, “Anything in our chest.” Or the cook who was asked what kind of pie she was cooking. “Oh, jes’ pie.”
There is no doubt that chess pie has Southern roots. From colonial days onward, sugarcane was grown and processed on plantations in the South. This meant that sugar was more affordable and more widely available in the South than anywhere else in the country. Moreover, Southern cooks quickly discovered that these sweet pastries didn’t spoil when kept at room temperature, hence the tradition of keeping them in a pie chest. Chess pies are often called “pantry pies” because you can use whatever is available in your pantry. The South was originally agrarian, and a farm woman had to cook with what was there. She’d put eggs, butter, and sugar together. And if it worked, she’d try to remember what she had done.
Today, there are many variations of chess pie. There is Jefferson Davis pie, a cream-rich chess named in honor of the former president of the Confederacy. There is pecan pie, chess pie with brown sugar and pecans. There is chocolate chess pie, either plain or spiked with Kentucky bourbon. And innovative Southern pastry chefs are dreaming up new spins on this Southern classic: lemongrass, blood orange, and pomegranate. But the classic chess pie, the mainstay of family reunions, potlucks, and church picnics across the South, is the recipe that follows.
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine filling ingredients in mixing bowl; beat on high speed 3 to 5 minutes or until very well mixed. Pour into pastry shell. Bake 25 to 35 minutes or until golden brown and firm.
Cool before serving.