Carolina Curious: Where Did The Name Chess Pie Come From?

Carolina Curious: Where Did The Name Chess Pie Come From?

3:39pm Aug 30, 2021
Don "Chef Don" McMillan with his homemade chess pie. DAVID FORD/WFDD

Traditional chess pie is easy to make and calls for the simplest of household ingredients — eggs, butter, sugar, cornmeal, and vinegar — and it’s been a Southern dessert favorite for more than a century.

And WFDD listener Sam Edwards wants to know more about it.

"I’m interested in the etymological root of chess pie," says Edwards. "It’s a favorite delicacy of mine. It’s a Southern dessert dish and I’ve always been fascinated by it — a.) because I enjoy the heck out of it, but b.) because I’ve always wondered where the name came from. It’s a curious title for a name. Blueberry pie. I can get my arms around that. Chocolate pie. I can get my arms around that. Apple pie. But chess pie?"

There are lots of chess pie variations, and almost as many theories on the history behind the name, and every Southern chef has a personal favorite.

American Academy of Chefs Culinary Hall of Famer Don “Chef Don” McMillan is a New York transplant who’s called the Triad home for decades, and a trusted source on chess pie. 

This is a pie from my childhood that I remember and a chess pie that my mom would keep in a pie chest if you can believe it. This is before the refrigerators became part of the kitchen. We even had ice boxes in the kitchen. But I remember we kept pies in the pie chest as well as bread was kept in there too, so baked goods were kept there. I think this is how it got its name: the "pie chest." This pie is loaded with so much sugar I don’t think it’s going to go bad anywhere. You don’t have to keep it in the refrigerator. 

Nancie McDermott is a James Beard Foundation award nominee who has authored several books, including Southern Pies with an entire chapter dedicated to chess pies and their many iterations including Molasses Pie, Transparent Pie, Vinegar Pie, and more.

"The one that makes the most sense is that chess is a corruption of cheese. To make cheese the traditional way is to make milk curdle, strain off the whey, and you’re left with the curds," says McDermott. 

She’s referring to the British sweets kitchen — cheese pies with sugar, butter, and eggs, but without any cheese. In fact, the early British cheese pies simply meant those with curds. 

"And you will find a lemon cheese pie — if you look back in cookbooks to 1910 and 1920, you’ll find a lemon cheese cake. It’s separate words. So, the presence in Southern baking of lemon cheese and cheese pie, that makes sense that this would have been called by somebody a cheese pie because it’s made with — the iconic one is vinegar, probably apple cider vinegar, and a little bit of cornmeal."

Stephanie Tyson is the chef whose recipes have been featured in the New York Times, and co-owner of the award-winning Sweet Potatoes restaurant in Winston-Salem, where they serve a unique blend of Southern-inspired uptown, down-home cooking.

Before cornmeal — because that’s the basic ingredient in the chess pie is cornmeal, the binder was chestnut flour. And I was reading that and it’s like, okay, that’s a concrete thing for me as a cook that’s not lore, it’s fact. Before you had this, you used this. So, it makes sense to call the pie a chess pie. And then because of the American chestnut tree blight, the American chestnut tree disappeared, so they turned to cornmeal.

Chestnut Pie to chess pie, cheese pie to chess pie, and pie chest to chess pie are three of the most often cited explanations for how this delicious pie got its name. But the most colorful of chess pie origin anecdotes is perhaps the most famous, and like the pie itself, every chef and culinary enthusiast has a favorite version. 

As one of the dozens of variations goes, an 18th-century woman was baking pies for neighbors at a time when nuts were scarce. To get around it, she made a sugar pie with eggs, sugar, flour or cornmeal, butter, and a splash of vinegar to cut the sweetness.

Stephanie Tyson recalls the story instantly.

“The slave that was making the pie with basic ingredients and somebody said, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s great,’ and the slave said, ‘Oh, no it’s jes’ pie.’ And you know how we Southerners say stuff, ‘Jes pie…chess pie,” says Tyson.

In the end, it’s clear that the elusive answer to our Carolina Curious question remains elusive. We may never know the etymological root of “chess pie.” And that’s okay, because, after all, it’s "jes pie."

If this edition of "Carolina Curious" whetted your appetite, you can try your hand at this simple chess pie recipe from Nancie McDermott's Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan.

Betty Thomason’s Classic Chess Pie

Pastry for a 9-inch single-crust pie

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon cornmeal

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 eggs, beaten well

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or white vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup butter, melted

Heat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line a 9-inch pie pan with crust, then crimp the edges decoratively.

In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cornmeal, and salt, and stir together well. In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, vinegar, and vanilla and stir to mix everything well. Add the melted butter and stir well to evenly combine everything into a smooth, thick filling. Pour it into the piecrust.

Place the pie in a 325 degree F oven. Bake until the edges puff up and the center is fairly firm, wiggling only a little when you gently nudge the pan, 40 to 45 minutes. Place the pie on a cooling rack or a folded kitchen towel and let cool to room temperature.

Makes one 9-inch pie.

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