It’s a simple dessert…with a complicated story.
Chess pie is a classic, old-fashioned Southern dessert. It’s sort of like a cheesecake, in that it’s refrigerator-hardened and sweetened custard set inside of a pie crust. The first printed recipe dates back to the mid-1700s in a cookbook called Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery. The recipe has been simplified over the years, but that one calls for a quart of cream, 13 eggs, a pound of butter, and a pound of flour. It’s still made with roughly those same ingredients (although in smaller proportions) and lemon is a common addition.
The end result is a yellow and white pie. One would think that something called “chess pie” would have an alternating pattern of black and white squares. So where does the name come from? There are three major theories, and all involve words being misheard and corrupted over time.
Chess pie originated in the South. According to legend, a cook on a plantation made up this kind of pie (or something very close to it) and was asked what she had made. Her answer: “just pie,” which, delivered in a Southern accent could be misheard as “chess pie.”
It’s a pretty simplistic answer, but the folk legend associated with chess pie says that
Close to the Chest
Before the advent of refrigeration, other methods of preservation were necessary to keep food fresh. For pies, a pie chest was used. (Also called a pie safe, a pie chest was a freestanding piece of furniture that kept pies and other foods locked up and safe from rats and mice.) Chess pie was one such food item stored in a pie chest and became so popular that it became synonymous with pie chests. Its name “chest pie” was eventually corrupted to “chess pie.”
Cheesy Does It
Or, “chess” could be a corruption of “cheese,” as in “cheese pie.” In that Martha Washington cookbook, the recipe isn’t called “chess pie.” It doesn’t have a name at all, instead introduced with the directive “to make very good cheesecakes without cheese curd.” In other words, chess pie is a variation of cheesecake.